The government is increasingly concerned about a possible fourth wave of coronavirus infections as new cases, including those involving variants, are growing in many parts of the country.
With some areas showing signs of a rebound in new infection cases, a fourth wave would complicate vaccination efforts.
The government will soon start full-fledged talks to impose pre-emergency restrictions only days after lifting its second COVID-19 emergency on Sunday.
"I'm feeling a great sense of crisis," health minister Norihisa Tamura told a news conference Friday, expressing concerns over the current infection situation in the country.
The government is especially concerned over a surge in COVID-19 cases in Miyagi Prefecture and in the Kansai region.
Infections in Miyagi started climbing this month, hitting a daily record of 171 on Wednesday. The Tohoku prefecture had been posting under 50 daily cases for nearly two months until mid-March, when the sharp spike began. Some experts lay blame on the resumed sale of meal vouchers under the prefecture's Go To Eat program in late February. The program was halted again on March 16.
In terms of new cases, Miyagi's situation is equivalent to Stage 4, the highest alert level and one that is sufficient to require a state of emergency. In neighboring Yamagata Prefecture, new cases hit a record 49 on Thursday.
In Kansai, Osaka Prefecture reported 386 new cases and Hyogo Prefecture 164 new cases on Saturday, both the highest since the government lifted a COVID-19 state emergency there at the end of February. That marked a sharp rise from two weeks earlier when new cases in both prefectures were hovering below 100.
Hyogo's occupancy rate for hospital beds for COVID-19 patients had reached Stage 4 as of Thursday.
If new cases continue to grow, the government will consider introducing pre-emergency measures in Miyagi and Kansai to allow prefectural governors to ask local businesses to shorten operating hours.
Economic activities have been growing in the Tokyo area since its state of emergency was lifted on March 21. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Thursday warned that the coronavirus will spread more than in autumn last year if crowds gather for cherry blossom-viewing parties.
"The number of new infection cases is still far higher" compared with the time when the first state of emergency was removed in May last year, a senior central government official said.
"If things are left as they are, we would end up facing a third state of emergency in April," the official said.
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