TOKYO -- As Japan reopened to foreign tourists on June 10, the tourism industry and department stores have high hopes for a recovery of their business. At the same time, moves to inform foreign visitors about the country's mask-wearing protocols and other virus countermeasures are advancing amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19.
New COVID-19 case numbers are trending downward globally after peaking in January thanks to the progress of vaccinations and other factors, and many countries are relaxing their border control measures. According to the World Health Organization, however, the number of newly infected people still stood at around 3.02 million worldwide during the week from May 30 to June 5, down 12% from the previous week. It is hard to foresee to what extent Japan's relaxation of border controls would contribute to pushing up new case numbers.
In the United States, it has been pointed out that the rise in the proportion of infection cases involving the omicron variant's BA.2.12.1 subvariant -- 62% as of June 4 -- is a factor behind the recent spread of infections in the country. South Africa, the U.S. and European countries have also confirmed cases of the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants.
In Japan, there are reports of suspected community infections with these subvariants. Looking at past infection waves, many were triggered by mutant strains that made their way into Japan from overseas, such as the delta-led fifth wave and omicron-triggered sixth wave. There are concerns that reopening doors to more travelers to Japan could carry the risk of spreading infections.
The Japan Tourism Agency on June 7 released guidelines for COVID-19 infection countermeasures ahead of the resumption of inbound tourism. Tourism minister Tetsuo Saito, who oversees the agency, stated, "We will work toward restoring tourism demand while balancing efforts to prevent the spread of infections with promotion of social and economic activities." As it is no longer common for people to wear masks in many countries abroad, the key to ensuring effective virus control measures will likely come down to whether Japan can get inbound tourists to understand its infection prevention measures, including wearing masks on a daily basis.
Under the guidelines, travel agencies need to ask tour participants to wear masks, take disinfection measures and avoid the "three Cs" of closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings. While mask wearing is unnecessary for activities including trekking and fruit picking, the guidelines call for tourists to refrain from talking loudly while dining. In order to avoid confusion among foreign visitors, the agency has created illustrated leaflets to explain the anti-infection steps.
In recent test tours conducted by the Japanese government ahead of the lifting of the travel ban, one foreign visitor was found to be infected with the coronavirus. The guidelines therefore call for tour operators to keep track of the activity history of tour participants and cooperate with surveys by public health centers.
Yasutaka Mizuno, director of Global Healthcare Clinic in Tokyo, who is versed in infectious diseases and travel medicine, noted, "It's necessary to swiftly take actions to prevent the spread of infections based on the activity history of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, on the assumption that coronavirus carriers may slip through border controls and enter the country."
Yet he added, "As there are currently no regions where new highly transmissible variants have spread, it may not be necessary to harbor excessive fears."
Professor Takasuke Fukuhara at Hokkaido University, who specializes in virology, pointed out, "BA.4 and other subvariants that are primarily reported overseas have the property of being slightly more contagious, but they are mutants of the omicron strain as opposed to completely new variants. It is essential to ensure infection countermeasures, such as wearing masks in crowds and getting vaccinated, while continuing to monitor the situation."
(Japanese original by Mikako Shimogiri, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)