• Reuters, JIJI

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Coronavirus cases in the greater Tokyo area are showing signs of creeping up, health minister Norihisa Tamura said on Friday, raising questions about whether a state of emergency can be lifted on schedule on March 21.

New cases "have ceased to fall or turned higher in Tokyo," Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, Tamura told a news conference Friday.

Restrictions such as shorter business hours for restaurants and bars have helped reduce new cases in Tokyo to roughly a tenth of a peak of 2,520 cases on Jan. 7. But the numbers are far from Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's target of bringing the seven-day average to 70% of the preceding week.

"The number of new positive cases has stopped decreasing, and we need to be very vigilant about the possibility of a resurgence due to mutated strains," Koike said on Friday during a meeting with health experts.

The seven-day average of new cases in Tokyo has been stuck in the mid- to high-200s since late February, while the daily tally exceeded 300 for the fourth straight day on Saturday.

Tokyo — and the rest of the country — are racing to bring coronavirus cases under control as it prepares to host the Summer Olympics, scheduled to start on July 23. Overall, Japan has recorded about 445,000 coronavirus cases and 8,500 deaths.

The central government will begin a full-fledged look early next week into whether to lift its second coronavirus state of emergency, in place for the greater Tokyo area, as scheduled.

The government will make a decision at a coronavirus task force meeting late next week while weighing a variety of issues related to the ongoing crisis.

Still, the situation in Tokyo and neighboring Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures has improved to levels near where the government could lift the emergency.

The occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in the four prefectures has consistently remained below the criteria for Stage 4, the worst level on the country's pandemic alert scale, according to data from the Cabinet Secretariat as of Thursday.

The state of emergency was issued in January, first targeting just the four prefectures, and later that month it was expanded to cover seven more prefectures, including Osaka, Aichi and Fukuoka. The measure has been extended twice and now covers only the four original prefectures.

When the government extended the emergency for the greater Tokyo area for the second time, for two weeks until March 21, it set a goal of "ensuring that the bed occupancy rate is low enough for Stage 3," the second-highest level on the alert scale.

That goal appears in reach, making a March 21 conclusion of the emergency simply "a matter of course," one government source said.

However, the cumulative number of infections with coronavirus variants, including those found through airport checks, has exceeded 300 nationwide, and there are signs of such cases growing in the Kansai region.

"The process of mutant strains taking the place of the original virus has definitely started, and the variants will become the mainstream sooner or later," Shigeru Omi, head of the government's COVID-19 advisory panel, has said.

The nation's current countermeasures will not be enough to prevent a fourth wave of infections, observers say. The variants are believed to be more contagious than the original virus. Another new variant has also been found in a traveler from the Philippines, authorities reported Friday.

In addition, foot traffic in major commercial areas in the metropolitan region is starting to increase, prompting Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to again urge people Friday to refrain from dining in large groups and going out for nonessential reasons.

Even if the government lifts the emergency as planned, it will ask eating and drinking establishments to continue with shortened operating hours.

In order to detect any resurgence of the virus quickly, the government also plans to conduct tests on people who are infected but show no symptoms and carry out epidemiological surveys for tracing transmission routes.

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