The central government officially declared Thursday that the coronavirus state of emergency currently imposed on Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures will be lifted Monday, but officials are urging the public to stay vigilant to avoid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

“We extended the state of emergency for two weeks (from March 7) and said we would cautiously make the decision as we took the situation over hospital beds into consideration,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in a news conference Thursday evening. “Those figures have hit the target to lift the state of emergency in a stable manner so we made a decision to do so today.”

Speaking earlier in the day, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the central government’s virus response, stressed the importance of minimizing a resurgence, and vowed to enhance mass testing in large cities and boost contact-tracing to detect early signs of a worsening outbreak. He urged the public to avoid nonessential outings and forgo seasonal parties and gatherings, noting that the virus spread rapidly last spring.

“If the state of emergency, which is the strongest measure in place, is removed, there’s a plausible scenario that (the public’s) vigilance would be intermittent,” he said ahead of a meeting of a panel focused on the government’s COVID-19 response. “There could be small outbreaks in the future and it’s difficult to bring down (daily new cases) to zero. The key is to prevent it from becoming a significant outbreak.”

The government’s advisory panel approved Thursday morning the proposal to end the state of emergency covering Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, a largely symbolic but necessary procedure to allow the prime minister to formally declare the termination.

Still, ominous signs that the daily numbers of new cases are inching back up along with the threat of variants with stronger transmissibility illustrate the precarious state in which the nation still finds itself. A soaring spike in cases would not only derail efforts to rekindle downscaled economic activities but also imperil the national health care system’s resiliency, the Suga administration’s credibility and the viability of the Summer Olympics.

Tokyo's Shibuya scramble crossing in October | REUTERS
Tokyo’s Shibuya scramble crossing in October | REUTERS

And for those living overseas, the authorities will maintain, if not strengthen, already stringent border control measures that effectively ban new arrivals to the country, with few exceptions, for the time being.

“We have to make sure that the message to the public is not that our lives are back to normal just because the state of emergency is lifted,” warned health minister Norihisa Tamura after the panel meeting.

As a reason for ending the state of emergency in the four prefectures, the central government and public health experts noted that hospital bed occupancy rates — the reason it had decided to delay lifting the state of emergency two weeks ago — have now fallen sufficiently. Hospital bed usage for COVID-19 patients in Tokyo decreased from 32% on March 2 to 25% Tuesday, from 42% to 38% in Saitama, from 50% to 37% in Chiba and from 29% to 25% in Kanagawa, according to Cabinet Secretariat data.

There was speculation that the central government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government were eager to roll back the emergency before the Olympic torch relay begins March 25. Earlier this month, Katsunobu Kato, the top government spokesman, denied there was a correlation between the state of emergency and the relay.

Nishimura said no one on the panel had objected to removing the restrictions that primarily target restaurants by asking them to close by 8 p.m. and to stop serving alcoholic beverages by 7 p.m.

Suga, for his part, touted the state of emergency’s effectiveness Wednesday evening by pointing out that the number of new cases has gone down about 80% compared to the peak of the third wave in January.

To flatten any rebound of infection numbers, Nishimura vowed to increase cooperation with private testing facilities to spot variants, continue mass testing at senior living facilities to prevent clusters of cases among the nation’s most vulnerable demographic and begin random, mass-testing in metropolitan Tokyo areas as early as this week.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga | POOL / VIA REUTERS

In response to the end of the emergency, Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa are planning to ask eateries to close at 9 p.m. rather than 8 p.m. through at least the end of the month.

In Tokyo, the number of daily cases exceeded 400 for the first time in a month Wednesday, in what could be a sign that progress in reducing infections may have stalled. Tokyo logged 323 new cases Thursday, putting the seven-day daily average at 297.

Coronavirus variants had infected 399 people as of Tuesday, up 128 people from the previous week. So far, a total of 26 prefectures have reported a case involving variants at one time or another as of this week, five more prefectures than the number seen last week. Tamura said that more positive tests will be screened for variants going forward. Currently, about 5% to 10% of positive samples are screened for variants, but the government is aiming to increase that rate to 40%.

As for hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, a health ministry tally showed an increase nationwide of a mere 9%, from 27,728 on Jan. 13, immediately after the state of emergency was declared, to 30,231 on March 10.

The health ministry’s advisory board recommended Wednesday that the country maintain strict border control measures to contain variants.

“In a way, what’s done after the emergency is lifted is more important,” said Shigeru Omi, the head of the advisory panel. “We need to be thorough in avoiding a rebound (in cases) to absolutely avoid a situation like we were in before, which burdened health care and public health.”

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