Japan’s state of emergency — currently active in 19 prefectures — is slated to expire completely on Thursday in a stark contrast to previous orders, which were all lifted incrementally or first downgraded to weaker quasi-emergency measures.
If both the state of emergency and quasi-emergency measures are lifted entirely, it will be the first time since early April that no prefectures are under either. The government is also expected to lift quasi-emergency measures in eight prefectures.
However, the government is reportedly considering allowing governors to implement COVID-19 countermeasures for the month after the existing restrictions expire.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will formally announce the decision Tuesday evening following discussions with infectious disease experts from the central government’s coronavirus subcommittee. So far, none of the 19 prefectures have asked for an extension of the emergency.
“It seems the government will be able to lift the emergency as planned at the end of the month,” health minister Norihisa Tamura said during a television program on Sunday.
While new cases are declining, Tamura warned the public not to let their guard down for fear of causing a winter rebound. He added that various restrictions, including reduced business hours for restaurants and bars, should be relaxed gradually, and that officials should bolster health care capacity — by establishing additional facilities for overflow patients and procuring medical personnel, among other things — in preparation for the next outbreak.
On Sunday, the governors of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama called on the central government to clarify how it plans to lift COVID-19 countermeasures. Specifically, the four governors wanted to know if and for how long restaurants, bars and other dining establishments will be asked to reduce business hours after the state of emergency is lifted.
The governors also urged the government to explain how it intends to protect the health care system from becoming inundated should the virus bounce back.
“It’s important that we protect the health care system, maintain effective countermeasures and prevent a rebound by moving forward one step at a time,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters Sunday evening.
“Maintaining effective countermeasures is the only way to prevent a rebound,” Koike said. “I will be watching carefully as the central government makes its decision.”
Once again, the country is looking to revive the economy as it reaches the tail end of yet another wave of the pandemic. But peeling back restrictions too soon or too abruptly would leave the door open for a resurgence of the coronavirus that could grow into the next wave, as has been the case after nearly all of the country’s previous states of emergency.
The nation’s fifth state of emergency, which was first declared in four prefectures in April, has been by far its longest. It was expanded to 25 additional prefectures before it was lifted in June in all but Okinawa. The order was handed down again in Tokyo in July, however, after a resurgence began to emerge in the capital during late June.
Within weeks, the fifth wave reached heights Japan had never seen before, blowing past previous records in a surge of COVID-19 patients that temporarily inundated hospitals throughout the country.
The wave appeared to peak on Aug. 20 when nationwide infections topped 25,000 cases. Cases have since declined to between 2,000 to 3,000 a day, while the number of severe patients, which was around 2,200 in early September, was 1,133 on Sunday.
Earlier this month, Suga announced the framework of a pandemic exit strategy that involved, among other things, the easing of restrictions on travel, dining and public events exclusively for people who have been fully vaccinated or those who can prove they’re not infected with the coronavirus.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the country’s coronavirus response, hinted Monday that vaccine passports could soon be required to attend some baseball or soccer matches as a way to experimentally test the country’s exit strategy.
Under a state of emergency or quasi-emergency measures, attendance at major events is limited to 5,000 people at most.
“Moving forward, we would like to figure out the best method and timing to implement the plan on a trial basis,” Nishimura said during a meeting Monday in Tokyo with athletics organizers.
Last week, vaccine czar Taro Kono announced the country will begin administering COVID-19 booster shots to medical personnel by year-end, and to older residents in the new year.
Several countries around the world are rushing to deliver booster shots amid mounting evidence that the antibodies generated by preliminary doses decline over time.
As of Monday, about 52% of the population had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
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