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Health minister Norihisa Tamura on Sunday urged the public to avoid activities with a high risk of coronavirus infection, noting that the virus is becoming more contagious.

He made the request during a television program just as the government’s COVID-19 state of emergency, which currently covers Tokyo and the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, is set to be expanded to three prefectures neighboring the capital — Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa — and Osaka Prefecture from Monday. The state of emergency will run until the end of August.

Tamura said that the highly transmissible delta variant is responsible for the current rapid spread of infections in Japan.

The mutated strain “is so contagious that we can’t reduce infections unless we refrain from high-risk activities more than ever.” He also pledged to provide as much support as possible to medical workers on the ground, noting that new cases may increase further.

Tamura also raised Japan’s rapid progress in COVID-19 vaccinations.

“If vaccinations of people in their 40s and 50s make substantial progress, we will see lower risks of COVID-19 symptoms becoming serious,” he said, indicating that the government will be able to gradually ease its restrictions on activities once this has been achieved.

The number of new coronavirus cases totaled 12,341 across the country Saturday, hitting a record high for the fourth straight day.

On Saturday, Taro Kono, who is in change of the coronavirus vaccine rollout, said the administration of booster shots is expected to start next year.

The booster program will use the COVID-19 vaccines of U.S. pharmaceutical companies Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., Kono said during an internet program, adding that he will make efforts to secure a sufficient amount of doses.

Kono also said that it is difficult to prevent the spread of the highly contagious delta variant with vaccines alone, calling on people to thoroughly take basic coronavirus countermeasures, such as wearing a face mask and frequently washing hands.

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