COVID-19 Infections Rise 3-fold in Japan Following Classification Downgrade

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A tent-based outpatient fever clinic is seen in this photo taken Friday at Kaneko Hospital in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo.

Transmission of the novel coronavirus is slowly spreading across the country and experts are cautioning about a possible surge in infections in summer.

According to reports from about 5,000 prefectorially designated medical institutions nationwide, case numbers have tripled since COVID-19 — a disease caused by the virus — was downgraded to Category 5 under the Infectious Diseases Law.

Okinawa Prefecture in particular has seen a sharp spike, registering 28.74 infected patients per medical institution, which is close to the level seen during the 8th wave of the virus at the start of the year. Experts are now expressing concerns about a summer surge and calling on households to prepare test kits and treatments to reduce fever.

According to the reports, released Friday by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the medical institutions each logged 5.60 cases of infection in the week ending June 18, at least three times more than the reference figure of 1.80 per fixed-point medical institution for the week of May 1-7, immediately prior to COVID-19’s reclassification.

By prefecture, Okinawa registered 28.74 cases, approaching the peak figure of 31.85 seen during the 8th wave. As of Wednesday, hospital bed occupancy in the prefecture stood at 59%, with seven key medical institutions placing restrictions on emergency room visits.

“Inpatient medical care is being strained in Okinawa,” Japan Hospital Association President Takao Aizawa said at a press conference Wednesday. “There have been cases in which Okinawa has seen a spike in infections, with infections subsequently spreading throughout the country. We’re worried about this happening again.”

At a mid-June meeting, an advisory body of the health ministry warned that there could be “a certain level of infection spread during the summer.”

Class cancellations have also been on the rise due to the virus. According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, a total of 105 public and other schools had cancelled classes as of June 1. Some schools in Fukuoka and Saitama prefectures have been shuttered since the start of this month.

Current COVID-19 infections are dominated by the XBB strains. The National Institute of Infectious Diseases estimates that by the end of the month, XBB-1.16 and XBB-1.5 will be responsible for 49% and 12% of new infections, respectively.

The XBB strains are said to have a high ability to evade immunological responses obtained through vaccines and other sources.

“Even if the effectiveness of the current vaccine is somewhat reduced, elderly people should still receive it to prevent them from developing serious symptoms,” said Tetsuo Nakayama, a specially appointed professor of clinical virology at Kitasato University.

Since last month, people aged 65 and older, and others with a pre-existing illness have been vaccinated against BA-5 and other strains.

From September, all generations will be eligible for the BA-5 vaccination, and the health ministry also hopes to introduce a presently under-development vaccine that can also work against the XBB strains.

Addressing the optimal way to respond promptly to the spread of infections, Prof. Tetsuya Matsumoto, a professor at the International University of Health and Welfare and scholar in infectious disease medicine, said: “It’s important to keep a close eye on various indicators, such as the weekly numbers for hospitalized patients and bed occupancy. In the event of a rapid spread in infection, medical services could become stretched, so people should lay in test kits and fever-reducing treatments.”