On Friday, Japan's prime minister extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and three other cities until the end of May to combat a surge in novel coronavirus cases fueled by the spread of virus variants just months before the Olympics in Tokyo.
The government hoped that declaring a “short and powerful” state of emergency would prevent a fourth wave of infection, but new cases in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka remain strong, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said when announcing the decision.
Extending the state of emergency from May 11 to May 31 would leave less than two months before the Games, which were postponed last year due to the pandemic, begin on July 23.
“There has been a rapid increase in the number of critically ill patients and deaths,” Suga said at a press conference, emphasizing the importance of preventing the virus from spreading from the younger population to vulnerable groups such as the elderly. He also stated that the virus's variant strains were rapidly spreading.
“We will resolve this in the foreseeable future,” Suga said, pledging to lead the government's efforts to expedite vaccinations, with a goal of giving the public 1 million shots per day.
Earlier this week, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is also in charge of pandemic preparedness, expressed concern that Tokyo would soon run out of hospital beds.
According to public broadcaster NHK, 61 residents of an Osaka nursing home were infected with the coronavirus, 14 of whom died while awaiting hospitalization.
On Friday, the prefecture of Osaka announced 1,005 new cases, while Tokyo reported 907.
COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, has caused 618,197 cases of infection and 10,585 deaths in Japan, according to government estimates.
While Japan has not been as badly affected by the virus as other countries, its vaccination program has been slow, with many elderly people still waiting to be vaccinated.
Despite this, Japan and the International Olympic Committee believe that the Games will be held, despite the fact that foreign spectators are prohibited. Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto reiterated on Friday that a decision on domestic spectators will be made by June.
The continuation of the state of emergency would not impact upcoming Olympic test activities, including an athletics event this weekend. Under the new state of emergency, the Diving World Cup, which included more than 200 athletes from 50 nations, was held in Tokyo this past week.
The Olympic torch relay scheduled for May 11 and 12 in Fukuoka, however, will be canceled on public roads in some towns, according to media reports citing the prefectural governor. When it comes to its turn later this month, Hyogo prefecture is also likely to hold the relay off public roads, according to Kyodo.