Japan hit a new daily record of coronavirus infections Thursday as authorities began hinting they may take stronger measures to arrest the increase.
A total of 1,661 cases were recorded nationwide, according to a tally by national broadcaster NHK, topping the previous high set during a surge in August. While numbers are low in absolute terms compared to many other countries, a spike in northern Japan is leading to concerns cases could spread as winter sets in.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister overseeing the country’s coronavirus response, said more stringent steps would be needed if infections continued to rise. That’s the strongest warning yet from the national government in a country that has largely escaped the worst of the pandemic.
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“If it continues like this, the medical system could become overstretched,” Nishimura said at a briefing in Tokyo. “It’s not at the point where we need to call for a state of emergency, but we need to have the strongest sense of caution.”
Nishimura said that in some regions, several criteria used to evaluate the situation — such as the pace of new infections and the proportion of cases with an unknown route of infection — had entered the second-most serious stage on the government’s monitoring scale.
The government is considering forming a new post that would coordinate its crisis management of the pandemic, NHK also reported.
Speaking Friday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he had ordered the government to be on the highest alert in its virus response, but said another state of emergency, or the halting of a popular domestic travel campaign, were not something that experts said were needed now.
The northern island of Hokkaido and Kanagawa, near Tokyo, were among regions that saw record numbers of new cases. The Hokkaido government has already asked bars and other establishments to close early in the regional capital’s nightlife district. Tokyo saw 393 infections, one of the heaviest days to date.
“This could be the beginning of a sharp increase in infections,” said Norio Ohmagari, an infectious disease specialist advising Tokyo authorities, at a local government meeting. “We need to be on alert.”
Japan has drawn attention from other nations for its ability to control the spread of the virus without mass-testing or enforced lockdowns. Despite two previous flareups, deaths and serious cases remain low, and hospitals haven’t been pushed to capacity. Life had been returning to normal, with sporting matches resuming and workers returning to offices.
But in recent weeks, officials have expressed concern over the increasing variance of infection clusters, with cases rising in nursing homes, hospitals and schools. Experts have pointed to an increased spread among younger adults tired of social distancing, as well as within foreign communities, which may struggle due to language barriers and more limited access to health services.
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