As Japan nears the planned end of its third state of emergency, infectious disease experts warn that a fourth declaration in Tokyo could be right around the corner.
A team of scientists led by Hiroshi Nishiura, a member of the health ministry’s expert panel on the coronavirus, projected that a fourth state of emergency in the capital may become necessary in August if the current emergency is lifted on June 20.
Nishiura, an epidemiologist from Kyoto University, submitted the report during a panel meeting on Wednesday.
“The Bon holiday and summer break are coming up, which could increase the number of infections,” said Takaji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and chair of the health ministry’s panel, after the meeting. “If the Olympics and Paralympics were to be held, that could also cause more infections.”
Competitive Olympic events will be held from July 22 to Aug. 8, while the Paralympics will take place from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.
As highly contagious COVID-19 variants spread through the country, the report said a state of emergency longer than two months beginning in August would be necessary in the capital to contain a wave of infections among young people — most of whom have not been inoculated — and prevent a collapse of the health care system.
Nishiura’s report was based on a scenario in which the state of emergency ends in Tokyo on June 20, a majority of people age 65 and older are vaccinated by the end of July and the virus in the capital spreads in the same way it did in Osaka beginning in April.
Based on those assumptions — but not accounting for the crowds expected during the Tokyo Games — pedestrian traffic could reach alarming levels in August.
The report also said that even if almost all people age 65 and older in Tokyo are vaccinated by the end of July, the number of infections may rise to a point where the capital will struggle with a shortage of hospital beds for patients with severe symptoms.
On Thursday, the central government announced that quasi-emergency measures will be lifted Sunday in Gunma, Ishikawa and Kumamoto prefectures. Such measures will remain in effect as planned in five other prefectures until June 20.
Coronavirus measures are being loosened as the country continues to accelerate and expand its vaccine rollout, which has picked up speed but remains far behind other developed countries due to a slow start, but critics are doubtful vaccinations will have a significant impact in the short term on preventing a rebound in new cases.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Wednesday that all residents that wish to be vaccinated will be able to receive their shots by November.
Suga said that 98% of all municipalities pledged they will be able to inoculate by the end of July all residents 65 and older, which account for nearly 30% of the nation’s 126 million people.
Large companies and a handful of universities will begin inoculating their employees and students, respectively, on June 21.
Tokyo reported 439 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday bringing the average daily tally of new cases in the past week to 391.7, compared with 475.3 a week earlier.
The number of COVID-19 patients that have been hospitalized, dispatched to repurposed hotels or asked to isolate at home also decreased significantly, from nearly 4,700 last week to around 3,700 on Wednesday.
While new cases in the capital have been declining marginally over the past several weeks, officials are concerned a rebound in the flow of people could lead to a delayed uptick in infections leading up to or shortly after the emergency is lifted later this month.
Still, infections occurring in households and workplaces continue to account for the largest portion of traceable cases. In addition, variants first detected in the U.K. or India are being retroactively detected in a growing number of domestic cases in Japan.
Of the positive COVID-19 tests screened by the capital between May 31 and June 6, more than half contained the alpha variant — which was first reported late last year in the U.K. — while more than 31% contained the delta variant first reported months ago in India.
As the fourth wave apparently dies down and officials loosen coronavirus measures, six weeks remain until the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, which will bring tens of thousands of visitors from around the world to Tokyo and possibly domestic fans from the rest of the country.
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