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Experts warn of 8th COVID wave as infections spread in Japan's chilly regions

This electron microscope photo shows the coronavirus's omicron variant successfully isolated at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. (Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases)

TOKYO -- Experts in Japan are warning of an eighth wave of COVID-19 cases in the country as infections rise again mainly in the comparatively colder regions of the north.

    The new daily infection numbers in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido have already neared those of the seventh wave this past summer. There are worries that Japan could see a dual coronavirus-seasonal influenza spike this winter, and the government is urging people to get vaccinated quickly.

    According to data released by the government on Nov. 4, the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents during the most recent week increased from the previous week in all of Japan's 47 prefectures. The infection number per 100,000 people was highest in Hokkaido, followed by Yamagata Prefecture and Nagano Prefecture -- all colder regions.

    Hokkaido recorded 7,895 new daily cases on Nov. 2, nearing the 8,632-case peak of the seventh infection wave. In Tokyo, the average number of new daily infections during the week up to Nov. 2 stood at about 4,305 -- 1.3 times more than in the previous seven days. In the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's recent infection situation monitoring meeting, one expert reported, "We need to watch out for a future surge."

    The average number of new flu cases reported at fixed points across the country during the week ending Oct. 30 stood at 0.03, according to data released by the health ministry on Nov. 4. The figure was lower than the 0.80 for the same period in 2019, but higher than the same period in 2020 and 2021, at 0.01 and 0, respectively.

    Tokyo Medical University specially appointed professor Atsuo Hamada, an expert in infectious diseases, pointed out that people tend to ventilate indoor spaces less often in cold weather, and that there are now more instances of crowding such as public events than at previous points in the pandemic. He said that the chance of a nationwide eighth COVID-19 wave is "extremely high."

    To prepare for a simultaneous outbreak of COVID-19 and flu, Hamada emphasized, "We want people to get vaccinated for the (coronavirus's) omicron variant and influenza early while taking basic measures to prevent infections." He also said that people need to wear masks in crowded spaces.

    While the central government is also urging people to get vaccinated quickly, only 5.9% of Japan's residents have received the omicron-specific shots that began on Sept. 20, according to the information released on Nov. 4. Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said at a Nov. 4 news conference, "We want young people -- not only the elderly, who have a high risk of developing severe symptoms -- to consider getting vaccinated by the end of year."

    (Japanese original by Rikka Teramachi, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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