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'Should have been canceled': Did Sapporo Snow Festival lead to spread of coronavirus?

The Sapporo Snow Festival is seen bustling with masked visitors in Sapporo, Hokkaido, on Feb. 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

SAPPORO -- The Hokkaido prefectural capital's premier event, Sapporo Snow Festival, has come under suspicion by the city government for having possibly further spread the new coronavirus or triggered group infections after multiple attendees to the annual snow-sculpture show were confirmed to have tested positive.

The popular festival in Japan's northernmost prefecture typically sees huge numbers of unidentified domestic and international tourists, and one expert has criticized city officials, organizers and others for treating the situation lightly. They also said the event "should have been canceled".

Ahead of the Sapporo Snow Festival's opening this year, the Chinese government banned tour groups from leaving China on Jan. 27. The decision had a big effect on visitors to the snow festival, with recorded footfall to its Odori site main venue in the center of the city between Feb. 4 and 11 at around 1.58 million people, down to 81.4% of the total the year before. Across all of the festival's venues, attendee numbers came to 2.02 million, just 73.8% of the 2019 figure.

A coronavirus infection had been confirmed in Hokkaido before the festival opened, but organizers decided to hold the event with additional measures in place such as posters encouraging people to observe "coughing etiquette," distribution of hand sanitizers for visitors to use, and getting staff to wear masks.

As of March 8, the number of people known to have attended the festival and been infected with the virus reached five people. A man engaged in clerical work for the festival at its Odori 2 Chome site in the center of the city was the third person in Hokkaido to be confirmed with the coronavirus.

He began showing symptoms on Feb. 8, and during the festival worked in a prefab hut with two others. One of those colleagues has also been found to be infected. According to a public health center in Sapporo, they did not have direct contact with attendees to the festival.

From mid-February, when the Sapporo Snow Festival wrapped up, until the beginning of March, the number of confirmed infections in Sapporo and the wider prefecture continued to rise. The movement histories of a number of the cases overlapped with the snow festival.

Taking this perceived commonality into account, the Sapporo Municipal Government began to suspect the event could have further spread the infection or served as a juncture for group transmissions. Consequently, from the end of February people newly confirmed to have been infected with the virus started being asked questions about whether they too had attended the festival.

Because the virus is believed to have an incubation period of up to 12 1/2 days, it's thought that infections emerging from March onwards are unlikely to be from those who contracted the virus at the event. Instead they are likely to have been infected through interaction with other carriers since.

Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido specializing in infection control nursing, cited the extremely close proximities that attendees would have been in to one another at the festivals venues to assert, "Just by having all those people gathered so close together, it means the risk of infection is high even outdoors."

She expressed misgivings over the decision to proceed with the snow festival, saying, "Tourists don't just go to the festival; they enter restaurants, they go shopping. I don't think it's out of the question to think that while the festival was on, it made Odori Park (which runs through the center of the city) a starting point for group infections to take place in the heart of Sapporo."

(Japanese original by Junichi Tsuchiya, Hokkaido News Department)

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