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The state of emergency currently in force across 10 prefectures due to the COVID-19 pandemic looked set to remain in place Friday, with the central government deciding against lifting the measure now amid concern among health officials over high numbers of hospitalized patients.

“Although the numbers of new COVID-19 cases reported continues to be declining, medical resources are still stretched thin, so we believe it’s necessary to keep the state of emergency in place,” said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the government’s coronavirus response.

The decision came the day before changes to laws on measures related to the novel coronavirus and other infectious diseases go into force, allowing prefectural governors in areas not under the state of emergency but where the virus is virulent to impose new measures such as ordering businesses to close early.

Earlier this week, the Suga administration had been hopeful that it would be able to lift the state of emergency, previously extended through March 7, in the prefectures of Aichi, Gifu and Fukuoka, after seeing numbers of new cases decline there.

It held back because the occupancy rates of hospital beds in the regions remain high. As of Wednesday, 43.3% of hospital beds available for COVID-19 patients were occupied in Aichi, 33.9% in Gifu and 62.8% in Fukuoka. The administration now intends to lift emergency measures in those three prefectures as soon as hospitals are able to accommodate patients relatively easily and the risk of a rebound in the number of cases is believed to have been minimized.

The new powers being made available to prefectural governors will provide municipalities with more flexibility to designate areas as subject to restrictions, with the aim of preventing transmission of the virus within communities and its spread throughout prefectures. The measures they can impose will be considered one step below a state of emergency.

The new measures authorize governors to limit business hours and charge a nonpenal fine of up to ¥200,000 if businesses refuse. Firms that comply with requests to shorten business hours will be eligible for compensation, but it is expected to be less than the ¥60,000 per day available to those under the current state of emergency declared by the central government.

Under the new measures, the central government will designate prefectures in which restrictions can be applied as well as their duration, while prefectural governors will determine the specific areas or municipalities where the regulations will be put into force. Unlike a state of emergency, governors will not be able to order businesses to shutter completely under this framework.

Prefectural governors from across the nation and Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout (lower right), hold a video conference Wednesday to discuss how vaccines will be made available. | POOL / VIA KYODO
Prefectural governors from across the nation and Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout (lower right), hold a video conference Wednesday to discuss how vaccines will be made available. | POOL / VIA KYODO

The government’s advisory panel for tackling COVID-19 approved changes to its basic policy on virus countermeasures earlier Friday to reflect the revised legislation, as well as a decision by a separate government subcommittee on who will be prioritized in the nation’s vaccine rollout.

The health ministry planned to convene a meeting Friday evening regarding the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine, in a step expected to be a final review, and is set to approve the vaccine formally on Sunday.

At the meeting of the advisory panel, Nishimura thanked the public for their cooperation in avoiding nonessential outings. He also thanked restaurants for closing early or halting operations under the current emergency declaration, which is in effect in Tokyo and the prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama, Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, Aichi, Gifu and Fukuoka.

But he cautioned that the number of older people — who are considered particularly vulnerable to developing serious cases of COVID-19 — infected with the virus remains at a high level and that clusters of cases linked to senior care facilities, hospitals, karaoke parlors and house parties are still being reported.

The government has been encouraging companies to make greater use of telecommuting, but Nishimura expressed concern that foot traffic during morning rush hours in the Tokyo metropolitan area has only been reduced by about 40%, and by 30% in Osaka and surrounding areas.

Foot traffic on weekends is on the rise, he added, urging the public to adhere to the government’s instructions under the emergency declaration.

“It’s important to make sure that the downward trend (of new cases) is definite and that burdens have been reduced on medical resources, especially hospitals that will be handling vaccinations,” Nishimura said.

Notices are displayed announcing the suspension of late-night train services at JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on Jan. 20. | BLOOMBERG
Notices are displayed announcing the suspension of late-night train services at JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on Jan. 20. | BLOOMBERG

Meanwhile, the health ministry’s advisory board on the virus response concluded Thursday that although new COVID-19 cases were continuously declining in most areas, clusters of cases at hospitals and senior care facilities could propel death tolls and numbers of serious cases to high levels.

The board also stressed that strengthening contact tracing investigation was critical to forestall a resurgence in cases in areas where the emergency declaration is lifted, and to detect variants early.

Last week, 11 people in Saitama Prefecture were confirmed to have been infected with a mutated strain of the virus initially identified in the U.K., in a suspected cluster of cases. None of them had traveled to the U.K.

“It’s unmistakable that there are variants in this country to some degree,” health minister Norihisa Tamura said Friday.

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