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90-case coronavirus cluster confirmed at Hokkaido ice hockey tourney

This electron microscope photo provided by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases shows the coronavirus isolated at the facility. (Photo Courtesy of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases)

TOMAKOMAI, Hokkaido -- A large-scale coronavirus infection cluster has been confirmed at the 16th national high school selection ice hockey tournament held here earlier this month, with 90 people including students confirmed with COVID-19 as of Aug. 13.

    The Japanese government is asking people to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test when going to and from areas where a state of emergency is in effect, but the tournament organizers did not follow this guidance. As there were about 1,000 participants from 26 teams from across Japan, including those linked to the event, it is possible that the infections will spread further in each team's home region.

    The tournament was co-held by the Japan Ice Hockey Federation and the Tomakomai Municipal Government at three venues in the city from Aug. 4 to 8. In addition to 10 schools in Hokkaido, 16 schools and teams from 14 other prefectures participated. As of Aug. 13, 78 students, eight faculty members and coaches, and four people related to the event had been confirmed infected.

    According to a tournament official, in one team from a high school outside Hokkaido, all 30 players tested positive.

    Saitama Sakae High School in the city of Saitama withdrew from the semi-finals and the third-place playoff on Aug. 7 and 8, respectively, after finding out that one person on the team had developed a fever. Event organizers have not stated whether the fever was coronavirus-related.

    Shirakaba Gakuen High School in Memuro, Hokkaido, has disclosed on its official website how 26 people including club members became infected, among other information. According to the post, no one had a fever when they took their temperatures after arriving at the tournament site on Aug. 3. But when the Tomakomai public health center ordered all teams to conduct PCR tests on Aug. 10 after a person from a school outside of Hokkaido was confirmed positive, Shirakaba Gakuen found that some of its team were infected.

    The central government is asking people to take a PCR test before departure or after arrival when traveling from areas under a state of emergency. At the start of the event, on Aug. 4, declarations were in effect for prefectures including Tokyo, Saitama and Osaka.

    However, the request to conduct PCR tests was not specified in the tournament guidelines, and a Tomakomai city official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We conformed to the Inter-High School Championships' events policy."

    The impact of the cluster infection has extended to the municipal government's operations. Tomakomai Mayor Hirofumi Iwakura, who attended the Aug. 8 closing ceremony, was judged on Aug. 13 to have come into close contact with an infected person, and it was decided that the deputy mayor will handle public affairs until Aug. 22. About 70 city officials were involved in the management of the event, and the municipal government as a result will suspend some counter services until Aug. 20.

    (Japanese original by Junichi Tsuchiya, Hokkaido News Department, and Kimitaka Hirayama, Tomakomai Bureau)

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