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Japan's coronavirus infections surge to record highs

Julian Ryall Tokyo
July 30, 2021

Three prefectures neighboring Tokyo are set to re-impose states of emergency as the Delta variant spreads. More than 70% of new COVID cases in Tokyo are of the highly contagious variant.

Volunteers at an Olympic test event in Sapporo, Japan
Officials have said 193 COVID cases are tied to the Olympic Games Image: Kyodo/picture alliance

With coronavirus infection numbers rising to record highs across Japan, a government health adviser has admitted that the state of emergency imposed on July 12 failed to have the impact anticipated.

Japanese authorities reported 9,583 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the highest single-day figure reported to date and surpassing the previous record of 7,958 cases set on January 8.

In Tokyo, the total came to 3,177 additional cases, setting a record for the second consecutive day. To date, Japan has recorded a total of nearly 900,000 coronavirus cases with 15,174 deaths.

On Thursday, the Olympics organizing committee confirmed 24 new cases among people who came to Tokyo for the Olympics, including three foreign athletes, bringing the number of cases linked to the Games to 193.

"Unfortunately, the state of emergency restrictions have not had the impact that we hoped for and we now expect cases to continue to rise for at least one more week," said Kazuhiro Tateda, president of the Japan Association of Infectious Diseases.

"Our assumption now is that we will see 3,000 or even 4,000 cases a day in Tokyo before this wave of infections peaks," he told DW.

Delta variant spreads through Tokyo

Initially, the panel had expected Japan’s fifth wave of the pandemic to reach a high of around 2,000 cases a day in the week before the opening of the Games, and then quickly decline.

Tateda says two main factors are to blame for the spike in numbers.

"The latest figures show that the Delta strain of the virus is spreading very worryingly," he said, pointing out that more than 70% of new cases in Tokyo are of this more virulent variety of the disease.

"The other issue is that people — especially young people — are tired of being unable to go out to bars and restaurants and to see their friends," he said.

"After a year-and-a-half, they do not want to isolate anymore. They want to go out and enjoy their summer," Tateda said, adding that Tokyo has seen a spike in cases among people in their 20s and 30s.

But it is not just Japan's young people who are experiencing "coronavirus fatigue."

"I’m not so interested in the Olympics, but I have a daughter of 9 and it is impossible to stay at home all the time," said Mari Faynot, 41.

"I have been going to work on the subway for months now and I take all the precautions they tell us are necessary — I wear a mask, I disinfect my hands regularly — and nothing has happened to me or anyone that I know," she told DW. "Now it is the summer holidays and my daughter wants to go to the park or to meet her friends. So we have to let her."

Vaccine stocks in low supply

Health authorities on Wednesday carried out fewer than 12,500 tests in the capital and the three surrounding prefectures, returning a positive rate of 15%.

The rollout of Japan's vaccine campaign, meanwhile, has stalled as stocks run low, with just 23.7% of the entire population having received two doses to date.

Experts are warning that hospitals in and around Tokyo are struggling to cope with the growing numbers of people who require in-patient care.

Tokyo Olympics a financial disaster for Japan

"My personal concern is that the number of critical cases is reaching the point that hospitals in Tokyo are coming close to their capacity," said Tateda. "We need to bring the caseload down and then, with vaccinations increasing, I am hopeful that we might be able to stabilize the situation in October or November."

Three prefectures neighboring Tokyo — Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba — are due to re-impose states of emergency on Friday.

'Positive feelings toward Japan'

Seishi Yoda, a retired businessman, says he is "concerned about infections," but "happy" nevertheless that the Olympics are going ahead.

"We are already nearly a week after the opening ceremony and things have not been too bad," Yoda told DW. "I think it was the right decision to stop spectators going to stadiums and to tell people to watch on television at home. It’s unfortunate, but it’s right."

"My hope now is that the sport continues to bring people together, that everyone watching around the world enjoys the Games and has positive feelings toward Japan," he added.