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COVID-19 case spikes have Japan's local gov'ts scrambling to stop 5th wave

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura explains his prefecture's coronavirus situation at a July 28, 2021 press conference in the city of Osaka's Chuo Ward. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

The coronavirus is spreading unchecked in Japan, with the lion's share of new infections hitting younger people. This has spurred local governments to work on quickly strengthening both their medical systems and measures to shorten business hours at restaurants and bars. Nevertheless, fears of a COVID-19 fifth wave are growing.

    Local administrations are scrambling to keep ahead of events. Hyogo Prefecture convened its coronavirus response committee on July 28, which decided to ask the central government to declare a quasi-emergency for the prefecture. The request was officially submitted the same day, which saw 254 new local COVID-19 infections -- the second day in a row over 250. Before that, it had been two months since Hyogo Prefecture's daily count had topped 200, and the committee concluded that the prefecture was "at the threshold of a fifth wave."

    The Hyogo Prefectural Government has issued requests to restaurants and bars in 10 municipalities including the capital Kobe to close by 8:30 p.m. and halt alcohol service an hour earlier. The requests will extend to the city of Himeji and four more municipalities starting Aug. 1.

    The previous quasi-emergency for Hyogo Prefecture only ended on July 11. Considering the low hospital bed occupancy rate and other positive indicators, Gov. Toshizo Ido stated previously that the central government "may show reluctance" to the request for a renewed quasi-emergency declaration.

    However, the governor told a July 28 press conference, "We can't just fold our arms, stand back and do nothing. Prefectures in the capital region are beginning to move to ask for full state of emergency declarations, and I think the government will have to consider those requests and ours."

    Also on July 28, Ishikawa Prefecture recorded its highest ever single-day COVID-19 case count, at 119. That night, it requested the central government to impose a quasi-emergency.

    The same day, Kyoto Prefecture reported 175 new cases, beating its previous highest tally of 174 set on April 24 this year. As of July 27, only three of the prefecture's 38 beds set aside for severe COVID-19 patients were occupied, but the area meets most of the central government's criteria for Stage 3 infection status, or an infection spike.

    Amid growing fears of a nationwide case increase, Kyoto Prefecture is already asking its eateries to close early, and Gov. Takatoshi Nishiwaki has said that "current conditions do not permit any loosening of (anti-infection) measures." The prefecture's countermeasures committee is set to meet this week to debate what to do going forward.

    What's notable about the latest coronavirus surge in Japan is that the people getting infected tend to be young. In Osaka Prefecture, the number of new patients in their 20s and 30s is especially striking. Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura has said that "infections are spiking among age groups that have not yet been vaccinated, and it is possible that our medical system will come under severe pressure."

    According to Osaka Prefecture, of the 798 new COVID-19 cases confirmed on July 28, 396 of them were in their 20s and 30s -- or 50% of the total. Another 246 -- or 31% -- were in their 40s and 50s, while just 40 -- or 5% -- were aged 60-plus. Meanwhile, on May 15, when 785 new infections were confirmed, 39% of them were in the 20-39 age bracket, 25% were aged 40-59, and the over 60s accounted for another 25%.

    As of July 27, Japanese government data states, 80.5% of Osaka Prefecture residents aged 65 and over, or some 2.38 million people, had got their first coronavirus vaccine shot, and 64.7% had got both. However, among the prefecture's total population of 8.85 million, only 30.6% had received their first shot, and 19.7% had got their second.

    Meanwhile, infections are spreading among the young and middle-aged residents who have not yet been able to get their shots, and the prefecture is projecting that it will therefore see a lot of mild to medium severity COVID-19 cases among these age groups. At present, Osaka Prefecture has 2,510 hospital beds set aside for these kinds of cases. It submitted bed requests to 80 medical institutions on July 28 to boost that total by another 500.

    (Japanese original by Motohiro Inoue, Kobe Bureau, Kenji Yagura, Kyoto Bureau, and Masaki Ishikawa, Osaka City News Department)

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