• Staff Report, JIJI, Kyodo

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One month after Japan’s first confirmed case of the omicron variant, concerns of a COVID-19 wave are continuing to grow and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is requesting people stay vigilant and to take basic preventive measures during the holiday season.

“The omicron variant has been widely spreading around the world. While our nation has placed rigorous border measures, we are also proceeding with bringing forward the booster shots, offering more free PCR testing, introducing oral drugs and securing robust medical care systems with an assumption that the worst scenario could occur,” Kishida said in a video message on Wednesday.

As many people are expected to return home, travel and have parties during the year-end to new year holiday season, the prime minister has asked people to thoroughly take basic measures to avoid infection — including hand-washing, wearing face masks and avoiding the 3Cs (closed spaces, crowds and close-contact situations).

Since the first omicron case was confirmed in a quarantine check at an airport on Nov. 30, the number of new COVID-19 infections in Japan has been rising, although the overall number of cases remains relatively small compared with the fifth wave.

Japan confirmed a total of 502 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, exceeding the 500 mark for the first time in over two months, raising concern among the public ahead of the holidays.

Of the total, Tokyo reported 76, the most since Oct. 16, and Osaka Prefecture logged 61, the most since Nov. 11. Of Osaka’s cases, 11 were infected with the heavily mutated omicron variant. In Tokyo, the latest seven-day average of new infections stood at 44.9 per day, up 57% from the previous week, according to the metropolitan government.

Last week, Osaka reported Japan’s first community-acquired omicron infection and such community transmission cases have since been confirmed in other parts of the country.

According to the health ministry, 332 cases of the omicron variant have been reported in the country as of Tuesday while no severely ill patients have been confirmed.

A health ministry expert panel has said that Japan is in a situation that requires people to brace for a rapid spread of the omicron variant. Epidemic experts have suggested that the prime minister shift the government’s focus in the fight against the omicron variant to domestic measures, as border enforcement alone appears insufficient to contain its spread.

A group of researchers led by Akimasa Hirata, professor of medical engineering at Nagoya Institute of Technology, calculated the pace of the spread of omicron infections using artificial intelligence technology.

The calculation, based on the premise that a community-acquired case occurs on Saturday in Tokyo, showed that the number of new omicron cases in the capital would exceed 3,000 in mid-February.

Even people who had received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been found to be infected with the omicron variant.

Norio Sugaya, a doctor at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama, stressed the need for the government to work swiftly to administer booster shots.

“Even though (omicron variant patients) tend to have mild or no symptoms, we are likely to start getting a certain number of people developing severe symptoms, given that it has been a while since many elderly people received their second vaccine shots and that the number of infections is expected to increase,” Sugaya said.

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