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Osaka Prefecture declared a medical state of emergency Wednesday as its medical system strained to handle a rapid rise in coronavirus cases, including a large number involving variant strains.

The declaration came the same day Osaka reported a record 878 cases. Neighboring Hyogo Prefecture, meanwhile, saw a record 328 cases.

Osaka’s decision comes two days after it announced a one-month effort through May 5 to get the virus under control by requesting that drinking and dining establishments shut at 8 p.m. Officials are patrolling restaurants and bars to ensure social distancing and safety measures are in place, especially the wearing of masks. But with cases rising to record levels, the prefecture feared its medical facilities would be overwhelmed if it didn’t do more.

“We’ve seen a rapid spread of infections, including the spread of virus variant infections. There’s a danger the medical system will collapse,” Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said Wednesday afternoon, explaining the reason for the declaration.

Under the new measures, residents are being asked to avoid going out unnecessarily. Students are being asked to wear masks during mealtimes, but Yoshimura said that for the time being there were no plans to close schools down. The spring term has just begun and Yoshimura said school closures could put students behind.

The governor also officially canceled the Tokyo Olympic torch relay on public roads. The relay had been scheduled to pass through the prefecture on April 13 and 14. However, he added that discussions were underway on an alternate plan that would bring it to the site of the 1970 Osaka Expo, now a public park in the northern part of the prefecture.

Pedestrians in front of Osaka City Hall on Tuesday evening. As of Wednesday, over 70% of hospital beds for seriously ill COVID-19 patients in Osaka Prefecture were in use. | KYODO
Pedestrians in front of Osaka City Hall on Tuesday evening. As of Wednesday, over 70% of hospital beds for seriously ill COVID-19 patients in Osaka Prefecture were in use. | KYODO

Wednesday’s announcement marks the second time that Osaka has declared its own local state of emergency, which comes with voluntary measures rather than legal orders. The prefecture had the same measures in place from the beginning of December to the end of February.

Only 56 new cases were reported on March 1, when a separate, nationally declared state of emergency for Osaka ended. The total hospital bed occupancy rate was 30%, including 35% for seriously ill patients with COVID-19.

Under prefectural guidelines, Osaka can declare a local state of emergency if the occupancy rate of beds for such patients tops 70%. As of Wednesday evening, 70.5% of the 224 beds for seriously ill COVID-19 patients were occupied. Because of staffing issues and the temporary use of such beds for non-COVID-19 patients, 86.1% of the currently available beds were actually full as of Wednesday morning.

Tokyo is also seeing a spike in new cases, with 555 recorded Wednesday, the most since the state of emergency there was lifted on March 22. Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters she was preparing to request that the central government enact measures similar to Osaka’s to prevent the spread of infections.

Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura speaks during a prefectural panel meeting on the coronavirus in Osaka on Wednesday. | KYODO
Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura speaks during a prefectural panel meeting on the coronavirus in Osaka on Wednesday. | KYODO

In the Kansai region, the situation in Osaka and Hyogo has created similar worries about the availability of hospital beds and medical resources. The governors of Kyoto, Nara and Shiga have already called on their residents to avoid unnecessary travel to Osaka. Nara recorded 81 cases Wednesday, a new daily record.

In Hyogo, over 65% of available beds for seriously ill patients were full as of Wednesday. Gov. Toshizo Ido was working with local private hospitals and other facilities to secure more beds. Hyogo’s policy so far has been to hospitalize mildly ill coronavirus patients. But that has strained local medical facilities and the prefecture said it will consider revising the policy to ease the burden.

On March 1, when the national state of emergency ended there, Hyogo had 30% of total beds in use, while 34% of those for seriously ill patients were occupied. The prefecture reported 21 new cases that day.

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