As the coronavirus spreads in Tokyo to a degree unseen in nearly six months, neighboring prefectures are bracing for the fallout as foot traffic rebounds and the delta variant proliferates in the capital region.
Less than a week after a state of emergency was declared in Tokyo, the capital reported 1,271 new cases on Friday, a day after it saw 1,308, the highest daily count since Jan. 21.
Tokyo’s weekly rolling average of new cases could reach 2,400 within four weeks if infections continue to emerge at this pace, infectious disease experts advising the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said Thursday.
“I want to remind residents that a state of emergency is ongoing and that, however tired we may be of these restrictions, following them could help the pandemic end sooner,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said during a news conference Friday.
In past virus waves, cases started to surge first in major cities before spreading to other regions of the country, posing a challenge for Tokyo’s neighboring prefectures, where new cases are beginning to rise.
Kanagawa Prefecture, which logged 446 cases on Friday, is considering requesting a state of emergency, and Chiba Prefecture, which reported 227 cases on Friday, is thinking of doing the same, according to media reports.
Less stringent quasi-emergency measures are currently in place in Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, all of which border the capital, until Aug. 22.
But the effectiveness of these steps seems to have come close to its end, due to the largely voluntary nature of Japan’s COVID-19 measures bound by the country’s stringent infectious disease laws.
The viral surge in Tokyo began just days after the capital’s third state of emergency ended on June 20. Foot traffic in the city had been increasing steadily before that, as had the number of cases linked to the delta variant, which research shows is deadlier and more contagious than the original strain of the coronavirus.
From late June to early July, new cases had been growing slowly but steadily in Tokyo — until July 7 when the tally jumped to 920 cases.
Officials and medical experts are concerned about the disproportionate number of younger people who have been becoming infected in recent weeks, while those in their 50s account for the largest portion of COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms.
New cases among older people are declining, however, which some experts attribute to the vaccination efforts. Those who are age 65 and above were prioritized for vaccination and the inoculation rollout for that demographic started in April.
Cases of the delta variant, which was first detected in India earlier this year, have long overtaken cases linked to the alpha variant initially reported in the United Kingdom in December. The delta variant is thought to be more than twice as contagious as the original strain of the coronavirus.
Tokyo’s expert advisers fear the delta variant will fuel a wave that exceeds previous waves.
While foot traffic in Tokyo dipped over the past week, experts attributed that mostly to the weather.
With the end of the rainy season in Tokyo, residents could become less willing to stay home.
Less than a week remains until the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics and the global sporting event also presents a risk of spreading the virus.
A vast majority of spectators were banned earlier this month but a handful of infections have already emerged among athletes, coaches and staffers. There’s concern that the tens of thousands expected to land in Tokyo over the next week will exacerbate the capital’s burgeoning outbreak.
The Olympic “bubble” meant to protect the general population from visitors — and vice versa — is showing weak spots, especially after reports this week that a COVID-19 cluster emerged at a hotel where members of the Brazilian Olympic team are staying, as well as news the women’s rugby team from Russia went into isolation after the team’s masseur tested positive.
Still, organizers remain steadfast in their commitment to the claim that the Tokyo Games can be held safely.
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said Thursday there is “zero” risk of a resident of Japan becoming infected by a participant in the Tokyo Games.
“Risk for the other residents of Olympic Village and risk for the Japanese people is zero,” he said.
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