Local governments blame U.S. bases for omicron surge

IWAKUNI/YOKOSUKA — Amid a nationwide surge in omicron coronavirus cases, Okinawa Prefecture and other local governments are pointing the finger at U.S. military bases in the country.

From Dec. 20 to Jan. 5, 230 coronavirus cases were confirmed in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, where the U.S. Marine Corps’ Iwakuni Air Base is located.

The prefectural government thinks the virus spread when infected people linked to the base visited restaurants off-base.

According to the Iwakuni municipal government, genome analysis showed that Japanese employees from the base and people infected at off-base restaurants had the same strain of the omicron variant.

“It’s regrettable testing was not conducted when U.S. personnel departed from the United States. If it had been, some of the cases could have been prevented,” Yamaguchi Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka said Thursday.

The number of coronavirus cases has also surged in the western part of Hiroshima Prefecture adjacent to Iwakuni.

Among an infection cluster of 39 people who had attended a dinner party in Hiroshima Prefecture, seven had links to the U.S. base in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The local government believes infections spread from the Iwakuni Air Base to Hiroshima and has sent a letter asking the base commander to implement thorough measures, but the prefecture said it had not received a response.

In Fussa, Tokyo, where the U.S. military’s Yokota Air Base is located, there have been no confirmed cases among the public that have been linked to the base.

Fussa Mayor Ikuo Kato said: “Residents have expressed concern. I hope that the base will do its utmost to prevent the spread of infections.”

At the U.S. Navy’s Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture, the number of cases has also increased sharply since the end of the year.

However, the situation is different from that of Okinawa Prefecture as most of the personnel involved entered the country by commercial aircraft and underwent quarantine.

“We’ll keep a close eye on the situation going forward,” said Kazutoyo Sakai, chairman of the Yokosuka branch of the All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, comprising Japanese employees of the base.