Omicron prompts quasi-emergency expansion across large swath of Japan

21-Jan-2022 Intellasia | JapanTimes | 5:02 AM Print This Post

To curb the rapidly spreading omicron variant, the government decided on Wednesday to carry out quasi-emergency measures, designed to restrict social and business activities, across 13 more prefectures.

The status will be effective from Friday through February 13 and will cover the prefectures of Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Gunma, Niigata, Gifu, Aichi, Mie, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Nagasaki, Kagawa and Tokyo.

The spread of infections did not show signs of slowing down on Wednesday, with Tokyo logging 7,377 cases. The number of severely ill patients under Tokyo’s standards stood at 10, while the occupancy rate of beds set aside for coronavirus patients reached 25.9%. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has said the capital would consider asking for a quasi-emergency status when the rate exceeded 20%.

The governors of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures, which have also seen rising numbers of COVID-19 infections, met online on Wednesday and decided that they will request quasi-emergency measures together when they are necessary. The daily tally hit a record high for two straight days in Hyogo, with 2,514 cases while Osaka is set to report over 6,000 cases.

Hokkaido will also consider a quasi-emergency status as the prefecture’s daily cases exceeded 1,000 for the first time on Wednesday, reaching to 1,170.

Under quasi-emergency measures, prefectural governors can request or order restaurants and bars to shorten their business hours and stop serving alcohol in specific areas within the prefecture. Businesses can be fined up to JPY 200,000 for noncompliance. Residents in these areas would also be asked to refrain from travelling across prefectural borders.

Sources said that Tokyo is considering to ask restaurants and bars to close at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.

Certified establishments that have prepared approved anti-infection measures will be able to serve alcohol until 8 p.m. Uncertified restaurants and bars will be asked not to serve alcohol and close at 8 p.m.

The central government has decided to temporarily suspend its so-called vaccination-testing package that allowed governors to exempt those already vaccinated against COVID-19 and those with a negative test result from pandemic restrictions, in order to maintain economic and social activities.

The decision to put in place quasi-emergency measures instead was prompted by the highly transmissible omicron variant, which has picked up speed over the past few weeks. According to the health ministry, the number of cases nationwide was 454 on January 1, but reached a record high of 32,097 on Tuesday. During the same period, the number of severely ill patients increased from 53 to 281.

The widening of COVID-19 mitigation measures to more prefectures now joining Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures, where a quasi-emergency status is already in place came less than four months after Japan attempted to resuscitate economic activity by fully lifting emergency measures for the first time in six months.

Some business leaders have expressed skepticism about the decision to reintroduce quasi-emergency measures, pointing out the toll it will take on the economy. Given that the omicron variant is less deadly and with many infected individuals having mild or no symptoms, “the government needs to give more sound explanations on why quasi-emergency measures are necessary,” said Kengo Sakurada, chair of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, during a news conference on Tuesday.

Hiroshi Mikitani, chief of e-commerce giant Rakuten Group Inc., wrote in a tweet Sunday that the government should not turn to quasi-emergency status so easily considering Japan’s high vaccination rate, the less-deadly nature of the omicron variant and the predicted damage to the economy.

The government, however, has stressed that it is critical to avoid putting such strain on the nation’s health care system. Some data may suggest that people infected with omicron are less likely to get severely ill, but if the number of infections continues to surge, it could quickly overwhelm the health care system, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno.

While omicron cases in Japan are mostly among the young at present, the wave of infection could eventually spread among elderly people who are more likely to develop severe symptoms, the government’s top spokesman said during a news conference on Wednesday.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the quasi-emergency measures will successfully reduce the spread of infections. Some infection control experts have said it’s unclear how many people will be willing to cooperate and refrain from non-essential outings, as much of the population seems to believe that the omicron variant is not a serious disease.

Health care experts have urged the government to speed up the rollout of booster vaccinations, especially for Japan’s considerable aging population. In response, the government has shortened the interval for third doses not only for people age 65 and above but also for the general public from March.

The highly contagious omicron variant also forced the government last week to slash the isolation period for people who have had close contact with infected individuals amid fears that long isolation times may affect businesses and social activities. Those people are now required to isolate themselves for 10 days down from 14 days while quarantine times for essential workers are six days if they test negative on the sixth day.


Category: Japan

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