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People wear face masks for protection against the coronavirus walk on a pedestrian crossing in Tokyo. Japan set a national record of more than 200,000 coronavirus cases on Saturday. Photo: Kyodo

Coronavirus: Japan’s daily Covid-19 cases surpass 200,000 for first time due to new Omicron variants

  • The 200,975 cases marked the fourth straight day of a record count during the seventh wave of coronavirus infections in the country
  • Outbreak comes as medical staff and elderly care workers in Tokyo began receiving their fourth Covid-19 vaccinations after criteria was expanded

Japan’s daily Covid-19 cases topped 200,000 for the first time, according to a tally of new cases reported on Saturday, marking the fourth straight day of a record count during the seventh wave of coronavirus infections.

Tokyo logged 32,698 new cases, exceeding the 30,000 mark for a third consecutive day and up more than 13,000 from the previous Saturday.

The government said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno tested positive for the virus the same day. But Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other senior members of the prime minister’s office are not among his close contacts.

The national daily tally came to 200,975 patients, roughly double the peak of the sixth wave, which hit around 104,000 on February 3. The latest surge is driven by the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant known as BA.5.

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Record daily cases were reported in 17 of the country’s 47 prefectures, including Kanagawa, Aichi, Osaka, Fukuoka and Okinawa.

Despite the unprecedented numbers in large parts of the country, Kishida has said his government is not considering movement controls as a way to stem infections.

But Ken Osaka, a professor of public health at Tohoku University’s graduate school, warned that pressure on the medical system is already being felt. “We are entering a period where full measures must be taken to reduce the number of infected people.”

A total of 3,434 people in Tokyo are hospitalised for Covid-19, representing a bed-occupancy rate of 46.5 per cent. A rate above 50 per cent would mean the capital’s bed provisions are under pressure.

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With beds filling in prefectures across the country, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency reported a rapid rise in ambulances struggling to quickly find hospitals to dispatch patients to. Seriously ill Covid-19 patients are also increasing, with Saturday seeing a 12-person rise to 203 nationwide, the health ministry said.

From Saturday, medical staff and elderly care workers in Tokyo also began receiving their fourth Covid-19 vaccinations after the government expanded its eligibility criteria in response to the current wave of infections.

Last week’s decision to begin the vaccinations was aimed at ensuring enough medical and care workers are available when Japan sees record numbers of new cases driven by the BA. 5 strain.

Some medical institutions in the capital have been forced to limit the number of emergency patients they accept and scale back surgical procedures they conduct due to staff shortages caused by a spate of coronavirus infections.

A woman wears a protective face mask walks on a street amid the seventh wave of the coronavirus pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan. The latest wave is being driven by the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant known as BA.5. Photo: Reuters

Previously, the fourth dose was only available to people aged 60 and over and those between 18 and 59 with pre-existing conditions and considered at higher risk of developing severe symptoms when infected with the virus.

A study shows the fourth inoculation has relative efficacy for elderly people but may only provide marginal protection for younger people.

The fourth vaccination is available at three mass vaccination sites, including the Tokyo metropolitan government building, for residents of the capital or people who commute into the city.

A panel of health experts working under the health ministry said on Friday that fourth shots are effective to some extent in preventing the spread of the subvariant, citing clinical data.