Reflecting an “explosive” rise in new COVID-19 cases spurred by the omicron variant, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration on Friday decided to put Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures under a quasi-state of emergency after consulting experts.
Meanwhile, amid fears of a further spread of the virus over the three-day weekend, governors in the greater Tokyo area planned an online meeting to discuss their response to the alarming surge in new infections.
"The government has decided that it is necessary to take immediate action against the spread of the disease in these three prefectures,” Kishida said at a task force meeting Friday, adding that the southern prefectures will make public the self-assessments of their health care systems' state of preparedness.
The declaration of the quasi-emergency marked the first time one has been implemented since the measure was last lifted in the country on Oct. 1. It came a day after the three prefectures urged the central government to put one in place, as the severity of new infections and the stress on the health care system had reached level 2, the third-worst ranking on the central government's scale, which runs from level 0 to level 4.
Okinawa reported an all-time high of 1,414 new cases on Friday, while Yamaguchi posted 180 cases, one shy of its record number of COVID-19 cases on Thursday. Hiroshima posted 273 cases, logged Thursday, the highest since late August.
The measures, which will take effect Sunday and last through Jan. 31, will empower prefectural governors to impose anti-virus measures that are less stringent in nature than a full state of emergency.
Unlike the more restrictive state of emergency, a quasi-emergency does not allow prefectural governors to force the temporary closures of businesses. But the governors can still request that companies shorten business hours, and if they do not comply, they can order businesses to do so. Noncompliance carries a fine of up to ¥200,000.
Okinawa will ask restaurants to close at 9 p.m., while the other two prefectures will ask them to shut at 8 p.m. Hiroshima and Yamaguchi will also ask them to not serve alcohol.
Nationwide, cases totaled 4,475 on Thursday, the highest figure since Sept. 18, and have grown nearly ninefold in just a week. Major cities are also seeing a surge in cases, with Tokyo posting 922 new cases Friday, the highest since Sept. 15 and a near twelvefold increase from a week earlier. Osaka, meanwhile, reported 676 cases, the highest amount since mid-September.
Projections using artificial intelligence by Nagoya Institute of Technology Professor Akimasa Hirata show daily cases in Tokyo could grow to around 5,000 in March, up from 631 cases Thursday. That compares with the record 5,908 cases posted at the peak of the fifth wave on Aug. 13.
Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa said the prefecture's worst projections showed new infections could exceed 10,000 cases by the end of the month.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Thursday that the spread of omicron cases was progressing at a faster pace than those of the delta or alpha variants, and that omicron is set to become the dominant strain.
The infection situation and stress on the health care system in Tokyo is still not severe enough to request the quasi-emergency measures. Nonetheless, the alarming spread of new cases prompted the governors of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba to decide to hold a meeting later Friday to discuss their response. There are concerns that the Coming of Age Day ceremonies held across the country on the national holiday on Monday could ignite a further spike in new infections.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Friday decided to revise its advisory on limiting group dining at certified restaurants, halving it to four people, reports said. Koike said her government would consider taking stronger measures without delay.
“We have to be strongly aware that the fight against the coronavirus has entered a new phase,” she said, urging residents to thoroughly implement basic measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
Health ministry calculations based on PCR tests showed that suspected omicron cases accounted for 46% of positive infections across the country between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2.
Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, said he believes the country has entered its sixth wave of the pandemic given the “extremely fast” and "explosive" spread of new infections.
“Though medical institutions nationwide are preparing for another resurgence in infections, an explosive spread of infections that exceeds expectations would inevitably increase the number of cases of severe illnesses, which medical institutions may not be able to respond to,” he told reporters Thursday.
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.
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