As Tokyo Olympics Approach, Virus Concerns Rise In Japan


TOKYO – The pressure to host an Olympics during an ever-active pandemic begins to manifest in Japan.

The games begin on July 23, with organizers determined to continue, even with a reduced number of spectators or perhaps none. While Japan has made remarkable progress in vaccinating its population against COVID-19, the campaign is running out of steam due to supply shortages.

With tens of thousands of visitors coming to a country that is only 13.8% fully vaccinated, gaps in border controls have emerged, highlighted by the discovery of infections among the newly arrived team from Uganda, with positive tests for the highly contagious delta variant.

As cases increase in Tokyo, so be concerned that the games will spread the virus.

“We must remain on high alert,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters on July 1. Noting the increase in the number of cases, he said that “the absence of spectators is a possibility”.

Seiko Hashimoto, chair of the Tokyo organizing committee, agreed.

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“It’s not that we are determined to have spectators whatever the situation,” Hashimoto said on Friday.

Organizers, the International Olympic Committee and others are expected to meet this week to announce new restrictions due to the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation.

Amid the criticism, Suga traveled to Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport on June 28 to inspect virus tests on arrival. He is committed to ensuring proper border controls as an increasing number of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, officials and media begin to enter Japan for the games.

Tokyo confirmed 342 new cases on Monday, the 16th consecutive day of increases. On Saturday, the capital reported 716 cases, the highest in five weeks.

At a meeting of government advisers, experts warned of the possibility of infections exploding during games, projecting daily workloads exceeding 1,000. They said it would strain health systems. . In the worst-case scenario, there could be thousands of infections a day, causing hospitals to overflow, they said.

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Ryuji Wakita, director general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and head of a government advisory board on COVID-19, called for tighter border controls to detect and isolate infected arrivals at airports to prevent infections spread from Tokyo to the suburbs.

In a case that shocked many in Japan, a member of the Ugandan team tested positive upon arrival at Narita International Airport on June 19 and was quarantined there. The rest of the nine-member team were cleared to travel more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) in a chartered bus to their pre-Olympic camp in western Osaka Prefecture.

Days later, a second member of the East African team tested positive for the virus, forcing seven city officials and drivers who were in close contact with them to self-isolate. The team itself isolates itself in a hotel. Health officials said the two infected Ugandans had the delta variant.

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On Saturday, a Serbian athlete also tested positive, prompting the cancellation of his team’s training in the central town of Nanto. The government also acknowledged that four other people arriving for the Olympics tested positive after entering the country earlier this year.

Experts say the cases show that health checks at Japan’s borders can be easily broken.

“There will be more people coming in.… We should use this as a lesson so that similar problems do not recur elsewhere in Japan,” Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said at a recent regional governors meeting. during which leaders adopted an urgent demand for tighter border controls.

Under the revised sanitation guidelines sent to 530 municipalities hosting Olympic training, airport officials will isolate an entire group if a member tests positive, and they will remain at designated facilities until the opening of the village of Olympics. athletes on July 12. Host cities can ask guests to stop training and self-isolate until they clear contact tracing and virus testing.

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Dozens of municipalities in Japan have canceled their accommodation arrangements due to virus issues, and many have decided to use these facilities as vaccination sites.

In Tokyo, infections are spreading among young people and middle-aged people who are largely unvaccinated. The most serious cases requiring hospitalization are gradually replacing the elderly, 26% of whom are now fully vaccinated, according to experts.

Japan’s full vaccination rate of 13.8% is slightly higher than the global average of 11.3% but low compared to 47.4% in the United States and 49.5% in the United Kingdom, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States and Our World in Data.

The uncertainty over the vaccination campaign in Japan adds to the concerns.

Workplace vaccinations began in mid-June as thousands of companies requested to vaccinate their employees. But the government then indefinitely suspended new demands for workplaces and large-scale vaccination sites due to the limited vaccine supply.

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“The progress has exceeded our expectations,” said Immunization Minister Taro Kono, noting that daily injections have likely reached 1.2 million or more. He said Japan will only receive a third of the Pfizer-BioNTechPfizer vaccine supply it hopes to receive by the end of July.

“The confusion is spreading across Japan,” because of this slowdown, said Kamon Iizumi, the governor of Tokushima who also heads the National Association of Governors.

A vaccination center in Kagawa had to suspend injections to 30,000 people and plans were suspended for 6,500 companies in Gifu, central Japan. Other regions, including Osaka, Kobe and parts of Tokyo, have also been forced to suspend vaccinations scheduled from this week.

“What a disappointment,” said Yukio Takano, head of Tokyo’s Toshima district. “We have worked so hard to speed up deployments and now we have to put the brakes on. … Why was it the rush? “

Japan began immunizing medical personnel in mid-February and the elderly in mid-April. Despite initial delays due to botched bookings and shortages, the pace picked up in mid-May when vaccine imports stabilized and staff were secured to meet the primary goal of fully immunizing people. 36 million elderly people by the end of July.

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Suga set up military-run mass vaccination centers in late May and added workplaces and college campuses to speed progress.

On June 21, Japan relaxed its third state of emergency with less stringent measures that focused on shorter opening hours at bars and restaurants in Tokyo and other metropolitan areas until July 11.

Experts suggest, however, that a resurgence may require another declaration of emergency during the Olympics. If so, organizers may need to reconsider their current limit of 10,000 people or 50% capacity at venues to perhaps ban all spectators.

Kengo Sakurada, chairman of Sompo Holdings and head of an influential business lobby, said on June 30 that the current vaccination rate is not sufficient to hold the Olympics safely.

He said he supported the absence of spectators for the events, as the damage from a worse outbreak would be far greater.

“I would take the safer option,” he said.

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