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Experts wary of possible COVID rebound in Japan after lifting of state of emergency

Visitors wearing protective masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus stroll at Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district in Tokyo on Sept. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

TOKYO -- Experts are wary of a possible coronavirus infection rebound if the current COVID-19 state of emergency is lifted on Sept. 30 as scheduled, even though the number of daily new infections is on the decline and the pressure on the medical systems in Tokyo and 18 other prefectures subject to the declaration is easing.

    According to data released by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, as of Sept. 17, the number of new infections per 100,000 of the population over the most recent week exceeded the benchmark of 25 people for Stage 4, or an explosion of infections, in 14 out of the 19 prefectures under the state of emergency. Okinawa Prefecture topped the list with 120.58 daily new cases, followed by Osaka Prefecture at 80.96 cases and Tokyo at 50.86. Nevertheless, all of the 19 prefectures under the state of emergency have seen a downward trend for at least two weeks, meaning that they fit the criteria for the lifting of the emergency declaration as suggested by the government's coronavirus subcommittee earlier this month.

    Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who chairs the health ministry's Advisory Board of experts, told a Sept. 16 press conference that the recent infection numbers "have been stably on the decline."

    The health care systems in various regions have also seen improvements. Regarding the hospital bed occupancy rate based on potentially available beds for COVID-19 patients, eight prefectures fell into Stage 4, or at 50% or higher, with Saitama Prefecture topping the list at 61.2%, followed by Osaka Prefecture at 60.5% and Okinawa Prefecture at 59.7%. Yet the pressure on hospital bed availability has been eased compared to the previous week, when 16 prefectures had been classed as Stage 4.

    When it comes to the occupancy rate of beds for severely ill COVID-19 patients, four prefectures were rated as Stage 4 (50% or more) -- Tokyo at 76.1%, Okinawa at 58.6%, Kanagawa at 55.1% and Chiba at 54.5%. That was five prefectures fewer than the previous week.

    Regardless, experts are not all optimistic. Tetsuya Matsumoto, professor at International University of Health and Welfare, commented, "Even though the infection numbers have taken a downward turn, the figures are still as high as those during the peak time of the fourth wave of infections this past spring." He points out that after the lifting of the state of emergency, "the infection numbers could see a 'rebound' toward the winter. It may also overlap with the influenza season."

    As part of measures to curb infections, he suggested making COVID-19 vaccinations available for younger generations, as well as the national government subsidizing the costs for purchasing antigen testing kits, which are currently under review for market sales.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Ogawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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