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Japan poised to widen COVID-19 controls as Omicron drives record infections

Randy Mancini 7 Jan 18
COVID-19 pandemic in Tokyo
FILE PHOTO: Passersby wearing protective face masks walk on the street, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan January 15, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

January 19, 2022

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan was poised on Wednesday to widen COVID-19 controls to cover half its population as the Omicron variant drives new infections to record levels.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to officially approve the plan after it was cleared by an expert panel.

The so-called quasi-emergency measures permit governors to impose curbs on mobility and business, including shorter opening hours for bars and restaurants, as well as prohibitions on alcohol sales.

The measures, already in place in three regions, will widen to cover Tokyo and 12 other prefectures, lasting from Friday until Feb. 13.

Japan recorded more than 32,000 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, according to a tally by national broadcaster NHK, exceeding the previous high seen in August shortly after Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics.

The western prefecture of Osaka posted a record 5,396 new cases, while Tokyo had 5,185, the highest since Aug. 21.

Omicron is more infectious than previous coronavirus variants but appears to cause less serious conditions. Even so, public health experts are concerned that a wave of Omicron cases could overwhelm the healthcare system.

Japan has vaccinated about 80% of its population against COVID-19, but its booster shot program has barely gotten off the ground.

Japan this month declared quasi-emergency curbs in three regions hosting U.S. military facilities, after it appeared that base outbreaks of Omicron spilled into surrounding communities.

Tokyo’s occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, a closely watched metric, rose to 23.4% on Tuesday. An increase to 50% would warrant declaration of a full state of emergency, officials have said.

(Reporting by Rocky Swift. Editing by Gerry Doyle)