• JIJI, REUTERS, STAFF REPORT

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Newly reported COVID-19 cases in Japan exceeded 15,000 for the first time on Thursday as Tokyo logged a record high 5,042 new cases.

Tokyo's neighboring prefectures also posted high case counts on Thursday. Kanagawa reported 1,846 cases, Saitama saw 1,235 and Chiba logged 942, all record highs.

Okinawa Prefecture also saw a record case count with 648 new infections.

Tokyo has been under a state of emergency since July 12, but Thursday's tally — which beat the previous high of 4,166 cases marked a day earlier — suggests that the measure has not been effective at preventing the spread of the more infections delta variant.

The seven-day average of new infections in the capital rose 64% to 3,646.9, according to the metropolitan government. Of Thursday's new cases in Tokyo, 1,600 were confirmed among people in their 20s, 1,120 among those in their 30s and 811 among those in their 40s. Those age 65 or over accounted for 180 cases. The number of people severely ill with the coronavirus under the metropolitan government's criteria climbed by 20 from the previous day to 135.

Japan confirmed a then-record 14,207 new cases on Wednesday.

In an attempt to curb the rising infections, Japan on Thursday expanded quasi-emergency restrictions to eight more prefectures — Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Shizuoka, Aichi, Shiga, and Kumamoto.

"New infections are rising at an unprecedentedly fast pace," Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister leading the government's virus response, told a panel of experts where the expanded measure was proposed.

"The situation on the ground (at hospitals) is extremely severe," Nishimura added, noting that serious cases had doubled in the past two weeks.

The panel signed off on the proposal, but Nishimura told a news conference that some members had warned the situation was severe enough to require a nationwide state of emergency — a stance shared by the head of the Japan Medical Association.

Six prefectures including Olympic host city Tokyo are already under full states of emergency to last through Aug. 31, while another five are under less strict directives.

The latest steps, to take effect from Sunday, mean that more than 70% of the population will be under some restrictions.

It remains to be seen whether the latest restrictions, which are mostly voluntary, will have much impact as the delta variant spreads and people grow weary of staying home.

"I do not think that more (quasi-emergency steps) will make much difference — (it's) simply a political statement," said Kenji Shibuya, former director of the Institute for Population Health at King's College London.

The latest expansion follows a sharp backlash against Suga's plan to limit hospitalization of COVID-19 patients to those who are seriously ill and those at risk of becoming so, while others are told to isolate at home.

"The medical system situation is severe and an emergency framework is needed," Masataka Inoguchi, deputy chairman of the Tokyo Medical Association, told a panel of Tokyo advisers.

The shift in policy is intended to address a hospital bed crunch, but critics say it will lead to an increase in deaths since the condition of patients can worsen rapidly.

In response to calls from within and outside his ruling coalition to reverse the policy, Suga told reporters on Wednesday that the change was aimed at regions with a surge in COVID-19 cases, such as Tokyo, and was not nationally uniform.

Suga promised to explain the shift and seek public understanding. But the backlash is a blow to the prime minister, whose support rates have already slid to record lows ahead of a ruling party leadership race and general election later this year.

Just under 31% of residents are fully vaccinated. With 15,221 deaths recorded as of Wednesday, Japan's COVID-19 mortality rate was about 1.6%, in line with the United States.

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