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Tokyo already showing early signs of another COVID-19 spike

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Signs of another COVID-19 rebound in Tokyo are beginning to emerge only days after the capital’s state of emergency was lifted.

During a meeting at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Thursday, infectious disease experts warned that new cases in the capital have been increasing steadily for two weeks, foot traffic has grown since virus measures were loosened and highly contagious variants are spreading rapidly.

“I don’t believe Tokyo has entered a fifth wave yet, but we’re certainly seeing the early signs of a rebound,” Mitsuo Kaku, an epidemiologist from Tohoku Medical and Pharmaceutical University who advises the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and serves as chair of Tokyo iCDC, the organization leading Tokyo’s vaccine rollout, told reporters on Thursday.

Scientists fear the delta variant — which was first reported in India and is estimated to be nearly twice as contagious as the original strain of the coronavirus — could overtake all other strains and trigger a surge of cases, which could then spread to neighboring prefectures and across the country.

Tokyo logged 570 infections on Thursday, a day before the city reported 619 new cases on Wednesday, the first time the capital’s daily count has topped 600 since late May.

The rolling weekly average of new cases increased from 376 last week to 418 on Wednesday.

During the same period, other key figures — the number of patients with severe symptoms, those who required hospitalization, the percentage of test results that came back positive, among others — have largely plateaued or increased.

People walk across the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on June 1. | REUTERS
People walk across the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on June 1. | REUTERS

Infections that occurred among people living together, totaling nearly half of all new cases, continue to account for the largest portion of infections in Tokyo.

In general, increases in foot traffic in large cities across Japan have correlated with an uptick in new cases since the start of the pandemic.

The movement of residents in Tokyo, while momentarily wavering in the days before and after the capital’s emergency expired Sunday, has been increasing throughout this week, the capital’s infectious disease advisers said Thursday.

The health ministry’s coronavirus advisory board said during a meeting Wednesday that new cases are plateauing or beginning to grow in Tokyo and some of its surrounding prefectures.

Hiroshi Nishiura, an epidemiologist at Kyoto University, said during the meeting the delta variant could account for almost 70% of new cases across the country by July 23, the day of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

The delta variant could account for half of all new cases in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area by early July, according to projections by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

While infections also appear to be plateauing or showing signs of a rebound in Okinawa, new cases nationwide are declining, albeit gradually.

The country’s average cases dropped from 9.4 infections for every 100,000 people last week, to 7.9 on Tuesday. That figure, however, rose over the past week in Tokyo and Chiba.

Japan’s third state of emergency — which had been active in 10 prefectures — was lifted on Sunday in all but Okinawa, where the order was extended until mid-July.

Mitsuo Kaku, an epidemiologist from Tohoku Medical and Pharmaceutical University who advises the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, speaks to reporters on Thursday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Mitsuo Kaku, an epidemiologist from Tohoku Medical and Pharmaceutical University who advises the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, speaks to reporters on Thursday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

In seven of the nine prefectures — where the declaration was lifted and quasi-emergency measures were put in place until July 11 — dining establishments are being asked to close by 8 p.m. but can serve alcohol until 7 p.m. so long as they’re complying with virus precautions.

While quasi-emergency measures ended on Sunday in Mie and Gifu, they were extended until July 11 in Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama – all of which border the capital.

It may be too early to call this a fifth wave for Tokyo, but recent history shows that a spike in cases can quickly follow the end of a state of emergency.

Weeks after the central government began to incrementally lift the country’s second state of emergency in March, replacing it with quasi-emergency measures, an uptick in new cases quickly grew into a nationwide surge. The country’s fourth wave of infections overwhelmed hospitals in Osaka and Hyogo prefectures and pushed health care systems elsewhere to their limits, forcing officials to declare yet another state of emergency.

Experts fear another repeat.

“New cases have been increasing steadily despite the enforcement of quasi-emergency measures,” said Tokyo Deputy Gov. Mitsuchika Tarao on Thursday. Gov. Yuriko Koike has stepped away from her duties for a week to “recover from overwork.”

“This upward trend needs to be stopped at all costs,” Tarao said. “And that won’t be possible without the cooperation of all of the capital’s residents.”

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