Japan expands virus alert in Tokyo area as surge spreads

Japan expands virus alert in Tokyo area as surge spreads

Japan is set to raise the coronavirus alert level in Tokyo’s three neighboring prefectures and a forth area in central Japan to allow tougher measures as a more contagious coronavirus variant spreads, along with doubts whether the Olympics can go ahead.

The move comes only four days after Tokyo was placed on alert while the vaccination campaign has covered less than 1% of the population.

The government is expected to official approve the alert status for Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba and Aichi prefectures in central Japan at a meeting later Friday. It will allow heads of the prefectures to mandate shorter hours for bars and restaurants, along with punishments for violators and compensation for those who comply.

The measures are to begin Monday and continue through May 11.

Many of the cases have been linked to nightlife and dining spots, but they have recently spread to offices, elderly care facilities and schools.

Japan added some 4,300 cases on Wednesday for a total of about half a million with 9,500 deaths.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the measures cover the areas hit by rapid spikes fueled by a new virus variant first detected in the U.K.. “The government will respond firmly even during my U.S. trip,” he said before departing for Washington for talks with President Joe Biden.

Suga’s government has been criticized for being too slow in enacting anti-virus measures out of reluctance to further damage the economy.

The surge has also prompted concern among many Japanese about hosting the Tokyo Olympics July 23-Aug. 8. On Thursday, two top officials said there was a possibility the Games could be canceled or even if they proceed, it might be without fans.

The new alert comes with binding orders but only for businesses to close early while measures for residents are only requests, leading some experts to doubt their effectiveness.

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Japan's vaccine minister says inoculation pace to accelerate in May

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan’s vaccine minister, Taro Kono, said on Monday that the pace of coronavirus inoculation in the country would accelerate in May, but that the Tokyo Olympics, set to start in July, were not factoring into the schedule.

FILE PHOTO: Japan’s vaccination programme chief Taro Kono attends a news conference on the country’s preparations to begin vaccinating health workers, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan February 16, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged to have enough doses for the country’s 126 million people by June, before the July 23 start of the Tokyo Olympics. Supplies have been trickling in from Pfizer Inc. factories in Europe, but are expected to accelerate in the coming months.

“Starting in May, there will be no bottleneck in supply,” Kono told Reuters in an interview. Officially the minister in charge of administrative reform, Kono was tapped in January to lead Japan’s COVID-19 vaccination push.

He added that he expected to be able to get 10 million doses of vaccines each week in May but that the Olympics, which a majority of Japanese have said should be postponed or cancelled, were not a factor in his scheduling.

Japan started its vaccination campaign last month, later than most major economies and dependent on imported doses of Pfizer’s vaccine. Shots developed by AstraZeneca PLC and Moderna Inc now await local regulatory approval.

Kono said the AstraZeneca vaccine would be approved “hopefully sometime soon”, adding that the decision was up to the health ministry. Having the AstraZeneca vaccine made domestically would save him from having to “worry about the transparency mechanism” that the European Union has used to limit exports of vaccines made there.

“If we have somebody manufacturing vaccines in Japan, it would take off half my headache,” Kono said.

As of Friday, just over 780,000 people in Japan, mostly healthcare workers, have received at least one vaccine dose.

While Japan has escaped the worst ravages of the pandemic seen elsewhere, cases have begun ticking up again recently, prompting concern among some officials about a potential “fourth wave” of the pandemic. Adding to those concerns, a report quoted by NHK national television warned that the country’s vaccination pace might not be able to keep up with the increase in cases.

Kono said that while the vaccine prevents symptoms, people shouldn’t depend on it alone and need to maintain preventive measures such as wearing masks and hand washing.

Though he frequently tops public opinion polls as a top choice for prime minister, Kono sidestepped questions about when he might take up the job. A general election needs to be held later this year.

“Right now, I’m doing my job,” he said.

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Tokyo area COVID numbers showing signs of rising, health minister says: Kyodo

FILE PHOTO: A medical worker wearing a protective suit conducts a simulation for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test at the newly opened Narita International Airport PCR Center in Narita, east of Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato/File Photo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Coronavirus cases in the Greater Tokyo area are showing signs of creeping up, Japanese Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said on Friday, according to Kyodo News, raising questions about whether a state of emergency could be lifted on schedule on March 21.

The Japanese government last week extended the emergency declaration for Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures by 14 days, saying COVID-19 cases hadn’t fallen far enough, while new, more infectious coronavirus variants posed a threat.

Restrictions such as shorter business hours for restaurants and bars have helped diminish new cases in Tokyo to roughly a tenth of a peak of 2,520 cases on Jan. 7. But the numbers are far from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s target of bringing the seven-day average to 70% of the preceding week.

The seven-day average of new cases in Tokyo has been stuck in the mid- to high-200s since late February, while the daily tally exceeded 300 for the second straight day on Thursday.

Tokyo – and Japan – are racing to bring coronavirus cases under control and vaccinations well under way as it prepares to host the Summer Olympics, which start July 23.

Japan’s COVID-19 inoculation campaign began only last month with health workers and has been moving slowly, hampered by a lack of supply. The country has so far recorded about 441,000 coronavirus cases and 8,400 deaths.

Health Minister Tamura said the decision on whether the state of emergency could be lifted in the Tokyo area, which accounts for about 30% of Japan’s population, would ultimately be made after hearing the views of experts, Kyodo reported.

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Japan supercomputer shows doubling masks offers little help preventing viral spread

FILE PHOTO: A computer simulation by Japanese scientists at research giant Riken and Kobe University, illustrates the effectiveness of different mask combinations worn to curb the spread of droplets during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, in this presentation slide supplied by the Riken Center for Computational Sciences on March 5, 2021. Red is a loosely fitted non-woven mask. Green is a fitted non-woven mask. Green and brown are a non-woven mask with a polyurethane one on top. The bar graph illustrates the “droplet collection efficiency”. The blue bar shows the results of wearing loose-fit non-woven (surgical) mask. while red shows a fitted non-woven mask, and purple shows a fitted non-woven mask plus polyurethane mask. Riken/Handout via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese supercomputer simulations showed that wearing two masks gave limited benefit in blocking viral spread compared with one properly fitted mask.

The findings in part contradict recent recommendations from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that two masks were better than one at reducing a person’s exposure to the coronavirus.

Researchers used the Fugaku supercomputer to model the flow of virus particles from people wearing different types and combinations of masks, according to a study released on Thursday by research giant Riken and Kobe University.

Using a single surgical-type mask, made of non-woven material, had 85% effectiveness in blocking particles when worn tightly around the nose and face. Adding a polyurethane mask on top boosted the effectiveness to just 89%.

Wearing two non-woven masks isn’t useful because air resistance builds up and causes leakage around the edges.

“The performance of double masking simply does not add up,” wrote the researchers, led by Makoto Tsubokura.

In general, professional grade N95 masks were the best in protecting against infection, followed by non-woven masks, cloth masks, and finally polyurethane types, the study showed.

The Riken research team previously used the Fugaku supercomputer to model how humidity can affect viral contagion and the infection risks in trains, work spaces, and other environments.

As the COVID-19 epidemic has worn on, scientific consensus has grown that the virus is spread through the air and masks are effective in controlling contagion.

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