Japan on Thursday announced the easing of a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and six other areas from next week, with new daily cases falling just as the country begins final preparations for the Olympics starting in just over a month.
Japan has been struggling since late March to slow a wave of infections propelled by more contagious variants, with new daily cases soaring above 7,000 at one point and seriously ill patients straining hospitals in Tokyo, Osaka and other metropolitan areas.
Daily cases have since subsided significantly, paving the way for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to downgrade the state of emergency when it expires on Sunday to less-stringent measures. The new measures will last until July 11 — just 12 days before the Games.
Suga said the relaxed measures will focus on early closures of bars and restaurants. If another surge occurs and strains hospitals, "we will quickly take action, including strengthening of the measures," Suga said, addressing concerns by medical experts.
Experts at a virus panel meeting Thursday gave their approval for government plans to downgrade the emergency in Tokyo, Aichi, Hokkaido, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka.
"We must do everything we can, and provide firm financial support as well," to minimize risks of a resurgence of infections, said Dr. Shigeru Omi, head of a government COVID-19 panel.
Japan does not enforce hard lockdowns and the state of emergency allows prefectural leaders to order closures or shorter hours for non-essential businesses. Those that comply are compensated and violators fined. Stay-at-home and other measures for the general population are only requests and are increasingly ignored.
Health Minister Norihisa Tamura told reporters the government would not hesitate to issue another emergency declaration even in the middle of the Olympics to protect people's lives.
The state of emergency will remain in Okinawa, where hospitals are still overwhelmed, while Hiroshima and Okayama will be taken off the list.
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Ryuji Wakita, the director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who heads a government COVID-19 advisory board, said that infections have decreased in many areas, but the slowing has bottomed out in the Tokyo region. He warned that infections could increase and that signs of a rebound are already seen among younger people.
Even as more people are getting the jabs and most of the country's 36 million senior citizens are expected to be fully inoculated by the end of July, younger people are largely unvaccinated and infections among them could quickly burden hospitals, Wakita said.
"In order to prevent another upsurge, it is crucial to prevent the people from roaming around during the Olympics and summer vacation," he said.
Experts say it is crucial to accelerate the vaccine rollout for the Olympics to be safe.
Suga has opened up mass inoculation centres and started vaccinations at major companies, part of an ambitious target of as many as one million doses per day. As of Wednesday, only six per cent of Japanese were fully vaccinated.
What's happening across Canada
As of early Thursday morning, Canada had reported 1,405,162 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 14,163 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 26,001. More than 30.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered so far across the country, according to CBC's vaccine tracker.
In Atlantic Canada on Wednesday, health officials reported 12 new cases of COVID-19, including:
- Eight cases in Nova Scotia, where the province entered the second phase of its reopening on Wednesday.
- Three cases in New Brunswick, where Premier Blaine Higgs announced Wednesday that the province had met the vaccination threshold needed to move to its next step of reopening.
- One new case in Newfoundland and Labrador, where health officials said Wednesday that second dose appointments would be moved up.
There were no new cases reported in Prince Edward Island, which as of Wednesday had no active COVID-19 cases.
In Quebec, health officials reported one new death and 153 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday.
Ontario, meanwhile, reported 12 additional deaths on Wednesday and 384 new cases of COVID-19.
In the Prairie provinces on Wednesday, Manitoba reported seven additional deaths and 144 new cases of COVID-19. The update came as the province said it hopes to have everyone aged 12 and up eligible for second doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of next week.
Saskatchewan health officials, meanwhile, reported two additional deaths and 74 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. In neighbouring Alberta, health officials reported 153 new cases of COVID-19 and four more deaths.
Across the North, health officials in Yukon cautioned Wednesday that a growing COVID-19 outbreak has "outstripped anything we have seen before." Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley said of the 49 active cases in the territory, 44 are in Whitehorse.
There were no new cases reported in the Northwest Territories or Nunavut on Wednesday.
In British Columbia, health officials on Wednesday reported 113 new cases of COVID-19 and four COVID-19-related deaths.
What's happening around the world
As of early Thursday morning, a database of COVID-19 cases showed more than 177 million cases reported worldwide. The Johns Hopkins University tracker put the reported global death toll at more than 3.8 million.
In the Americas, Costa Rican health authorities said that after studying the available clinical studies they had decided to reject the delivery of Sinovac Biotech's vaccine for the time being, saying it was not effective enough.
In Africa, some of the poorest countries in the world are seeing a two-headed crisis: a surge in COVID-19 cases and a critical shortage of vaccine. Fears are running high in African nations such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Uganda.
In Europe, Portugal is experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases, with the government set to review its pandemic rules on Thursday. The European Union country reported 1,350 new cases on Wednesday, the highest daily total since February. Experts say the delta variant first identified in India may be driving the spread. The Lisbon region has accounted for almost 1,000 of the new cases.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Indonesia's president has ordered authorities to speed up the country's vaccination campaign as the World Health Organization warned of the need to increase social restrictions amid a fresh surge of coronavirus cases in the country.
"We need vaccination acceleration in order to achieve communal immunity, which we hope can stop the COVID-19 spread," President Joko Widodo said Thursday while visiting a vaccination centre just outside the capital, Jakarta.
In the Middle East, Bahrain approved the emergency use for regn-cov2 medicine, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals' and Roche's newly authorized COVID-19 antibody combination, as part of its coronavirus treatment protocol to treat existing cases with mild and moderate symptoms.
With files from CBC News, The Canadian Press and Reuters
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