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Nationwide cases of COVID-19 surpassed 10,000 for the first time Thursday as the central government prepared to expand the country’s ongoing state of emergency to Osaka, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures.

Officials around the country reported high figures on Thursday, including a record-breaking 3,865 in Tokyo as well as 1,164 in Kanagawa, 864 in Saitama and 506 in Chiba.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to announce Friday evening that the country’s fourth state of emergency — currently active in Tokyo and Okinawa until Aug. 22 — will be expanded as the country struggles to contain an unprecedented rise in new infections.

“If we receive a request, we will respond promptly,” Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the country’s coronavirus response, said during an Upper House committee meeting Thursday morning.

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases projected Wednesday that the delta variant is now responsible for about 70% of infections in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

As the variant spreads rapidly in major cities, experts fear the dwindling impact of the central government’s voluntary countermeasures could trigger an outbreak that pushes the country’s health care system to its limits or beyond.

Shigeru Omi, the top medical adviser to the government, speaks during a Diet committee session on Thursday. | KYODO
Shigeru Omi, the top medical adviser to the government, speaks during a Diet committee session on Thursday. | KYODO

Without stronger messaging from top officials, experts say the impact of expanding the ongoing state of emergency — the country’s strongest weapon against COVID-19 — remains doubtful.

“The greatest danger now is that the severity of the current situation isn’t being communicated to the public,” Shigeru Omi, chair of the central government’s coronavirus subcommittee, told a Diet session Thursday morning. “If that sense of urgency isn’t conveyed sufficiently, the virus will spread further and the burden on the health care system will become increasingly severe.”

Compared with previous waves, the country is facing a higher number of daily cases, more infections among young people and the threat of the deadlier delta variant, but far fewer deaths and patients with severe symptoms who require intensive care.

However, severely ill patients are steadily increasing in several parts of the country — especially among people in their 40s and 50s — raising the occupancy rate for hospital beds set aside for such COVID-19 patients.

In Chiba, the occupancy rate increased from 17.8% on July 22 to 23.8% on Wednesday, while in Kanagawa that figure rose from 24.6% on July 22 to 29.65% on Wednesday.

In western Japan, Osaka saw 932 cases Thursday, the highest daily count since local authorities reported 974 cases on May 11.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said Wednesday that the prefecture will ask the government to declare a state of emergency there when the hospital bed occupancy for mild and severe patients surpasses 50%. As of Wednesday, the figures were 11.4% and 29.9%, respectively.

While the pandemic peaked in most parts of the country in January during the country’s third wave, Osaka saw the worst of it during a regional outbreak in the spring when it reported a record-breaking 1,260 cases on April 28, which it again matched on May 1.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike speaks during a coronavirus meeting at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Thursday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike speaks during a coronavirus meeting at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Thursday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

In Tokyo, infectious disease experts advising the capital have projected that, if the virus continues to spread at the current rate, in two weeks the capital could begin to see more than 4,500 cases a day.

As of Thursday morning, 2,995 — or 50.2% — of the city’s 5,967 hospital beds for COVID-19 patients were occupied.

The experts warned that new cases are emerging at an explosive rate, severe cases are increasing and hospitals in Tokyo have already begun to become overwhelmed.

Public traffic has declined over the past two weeks, they said, but not nearly as much as it did during the capital’s previous state of emergency in May.

The city’s entertainment districts saw evening foot traffic decline by 18% in the two weeks after the state of emergency took effect in Tokyo on July 12.

“We’re beginning to see an explosive increase in new cases the likes of which Tokyo has never seen before,” said Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine and a top adviser to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. “Unfortunately, it appears likely to continue.”

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