Just days after the Tokyo Olympics began, Japan started to see a sharp increase in coronavirus cases. On Thursday, the country topped 15,000 confirmed daily infections for the first time. Medical experts are now debating whether and to what extent the Games are to blame for the outbreak, which officials warn is “extremely severe.”
Japan has set daily record high infections at least seven times since the Games began. Most of the infections have been in and around Tokyo, host to tens of thousands of Olympic athletes, officials, and other guests. It is more than just a Tokyo problem at this point, however, officials warn.
“The number of new infections has surged across the whole country at unprecedented levels,” Yasutoshi Nishimura, a government minister in charge of coronavirus measures, told a meeting of experts Thursday.
“The situation is extremely severe,” he said, adding that clusters are now spreading at locations such as department stores, hairdressers, and cram schools.
Olympics organizers insist there is no link between the Games and the spike in cases. So far, only 353 Olympic-related individuals have tested positive. All visiting Olympics personnel, most of whom are vaccinated, are subject to a protective bubble meant to limit their interactions with the public.
Many Japanese medical experts are not so confident about that assessment though. The main problem is not so much the Olympic bubble, they say, as it is the very presence of the Olympics themselves, which have sent mixed messages and weakened public vigilance.
“I don’t think that the infections [of Olympics-related personnel] are directly related to the rapid spread of infections at all. But I think the fact the Olympics are being held has impacted people’s awareness,” Shigeru Omi, the government’s top medical advisor, told lawmakers this week.
Japanese officials for weeks have warned residents to stay home and watch the Games on television, especially since fans are banned from nearly all events. That message has fallen flat for many Japanese, however, who can still be seen gathering in public places in Tokyo and elsewhere.
“Many Japanese people find it ridiculous to follow orders to stay home. Japanese people don’t understand why they should stay home even though the Olympics are being held,” Norio Sugaya, infectious disease expert and doctor at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama, told VOA.
Sugaya is one of many medical professionals who opposed holding the Olympic Games in Japan. In the leadup to the event, polls suggested most Japanese also did not want the Games to go ahead, although opposition softened as they approached.
Many Japanese media reports have focused on journalists and Olympics athletes who did not adhere to protective bubble guidelines. There have also been concerns the guidelines are inadequate. For instance, some Japanese volunteers and other staff work all day inside the bubble before returning home.
Omi, though, says he sees “absolutely” no connection between the Olympics infections and Japan’s recent surge. The main cause of Japan’s COVID-19 surge is the appearance of the Delta variant, according to Sugaya, which is much more contagious and causes more serious illnesses.
Even as Japan’s infection numbers surge, its number of deaths is still relatively low. The country has reported only around 10 deaths per day during the spike. However, the number of seriously ill patients has doubled over the past two weeks, officials say, potentially leading to overcrowded hospitals.
Japanese officials recently announced they would focus on hospitalizing only those COVID-19 patients who are seriously ill or at risk of becoming so. Others, they say, should isolate themselves at home.
The government also expanded a quasi state of emergency to eight new prefectures Thursday. Under Japan’s pandemic prevention measures, many types of dining establishments are requested — not forced — to close early and not serve alcohol. An increasing number of experts question whether more restrictions are needed until Japan’s vaccine effort can progress.
Japan started slowly on vaccines but has recently sped up. According to official numbers Thursday, 32% of Japanese have been fully vaccinated, while 45% have received a single shot.