Health experts have warned that a third wave of COVID-19 cases is hitting Japan as government officials continue to try to balance economic activities with stricter protocols against the spread of the new coronavirus.
Daily records for new infections were broken on November 11 in Osaka, Saitama, Hyogo, Ibaraki, Niigata, Yamanashi and Iwate prefectures.
Overall, 1,547 new cases of COVID-19 were reported that day, the fourth highest daily total in the country since the start of the pandemic.
“I think we have to think about a third wave,” Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, said at a press conference on Nov. 11.
He said the situation in Tokyo was particularly dire, with the capital reporting 317 new cases on November 11, the first time since August that the single-day figure exceeded 300.
On November 11, a Department of Health advisory group also expressed concerns about the increase in the number of new cases, citing clusters of infection in entertainment districts, workplaces and foreign communities in various places.
The panel called for additional measures to deal with clusters of infection to prevent medical facilities from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, and to remind the public to wear face masks and wash their hands to block the spread of contagion.
Takaji Wakita, director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, who chairs the advisory group, was asked whether the government’s Go To Travel campaign to promote tourism is exacerbating the health crisis.
“While attention has focused on the Go To program, the main cause of the increase in infections is all economic and social activities,” Wakita said.
Nakagawa, however, suggested that Hokkaido be removed from the tourism program if there are signs of a sharp increase in cases in the main northern island.
Government sources have said that restrictions on participation in major events will remain in place until the end of February. These limits were to be relaxed in December.
Under the extended restrictions, only half of the seats can be occupied for sporting events at venues with a capacity greater than 10,000. For venues with a capacity of less than 10,000, up to 5,000 people can attend.
The government had gradually eased crowd restrictions after lifting the state of emergency for the pandemic in May. But the recent resurgence in infections has put an end to that trend for large sites, the sources said.
However, restrictions for movie theaters will likely be lifted.
The government had demanded that only half of the seats be taken in theaters that sell popcorn. But those theaters will be allowed to occupy all seats because patrons who consume popcorn are less likely to strike up a conversation during the movies, the sources said.
One study has shown that airborne droplets only travel to a limited area when people are eating and not talking.
SENSE OF CRISIS IN THE NORTH
Outbreaks of infection in Hokkaido and northern Aomori Prefecture are hampering public services and threatening already overburdened health care systems.
The sense of unease within the government of Sapporo city, the capital of Hokkaido, has been exacerbated by reports of clusters emerging in medical facilities offering advanced levels of care.
On November 10, Sapporo reported four clusters, including one at the National Organization of Hospitals Medical Center in Hokkaido.
Extensive measures to prevent the spread of infections were reportedly in place at the medical center, but nine nurses and three patients there have been confirmed with COVID-19.
Outbreaks of infection have also affected the Susukino entertainment district in Sapporo, a retirement home, a college club and a trading company.
A total of eight workers from three post offices in Sapporo were also confirmed to be infected, resulting in a temporary halt to operations at these facilities.
Aomori prefecture had only confirmed 36 cases of COVID-19 in total as of the end of September. But over the next month, the number increased sevenfold to 275.
One of the catalysts was a cluster of infections from a restaurant and bar in Hirosaki. After a doctor who visited the facility was confirmed infected on October 12, the infections spread to family members and colleagues as well as others in the city. About 180 cases have been linked to the restaurant and bar.
The infections have put a heavy burden on hospitals in the region. About 30% of the 201 hospital beds in Aomori Prefecture capable of treating people with COVID-19 have been filled.
The figure exceeded the 25% benchmark used by the central government panel of experts to classify an area as being on the second highest alert level for the novel coronavirus.
(This article was compiled from reports by Kyosuke Yamamoto, Akiyoshi Abe, Naoyuki Himeno, Ryo Aibara, Ayako Nakada, Toru Saito, Tatsuya Harada, and Yoshinori Hayashi.)