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Japan extends emergency amid COVID-19 vaccine, Olympic uncertainty

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                A man wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus rides a scooter along a sidewalk in Tokyo, Tuesday.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A man wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus rides a scooter along a sidewalk in Tokyo, Tuesday.

TOKYO >> Japan announced Tuesday that it is extending a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and nine other areas through March 7.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s announcement of the one-month extension comes amid growing uncertainty over the national rollout of vaccines and the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Under the state of emergency, the government has issued non-binding requests for people to avoid crowds and eating out in groups, and for restaurants and bars to close by 8 p.m.

New cases have declined in Tokyo and nationwide since early January, but experts say hospitals remain flooded with serious cases and that preventive measures should remain in place.

Japan has had about 400,000 coronavirus cases, including 5,800 deaths.

“We still need to keep a close watch on the situation,” health minister Norihisa Tamura said Tuesday. About 80% of the cases in Japan are in the 10 prefectures under the emergency, he said.

The emergency will end Sunday as earlier planned in one prefecture, Tochigi north of Tokyo, where the situation has improved. It will remain in place in Tokyo and its neighbors Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa, as well as in Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka in the west and Aichi and Gifu in central Japan.

In addition to the request for bars and restaurants to close early, employers were asked to arrange for more of their staff to work from home. Additionally, the government will expand testing, officials said.

Unlike Japan’s first emergency in April and May last year, schools, gyms, theaters and shops remain open, although some stores are voluntarily closing early.

Suga took office in September and pledged to get the economy back on track while keeping coronavirus infections under control. He says he is determined to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Suga has promised to secure enough vaccines to cover Japan’s entire population of 127 million by June, but none has been approved yet.

Administrative Reform Minister Taro Kono, who is in charge of COVID-19 vaccines, raised concern Tuesday about the delayed distribution of European-made vaccines, saying Japan’s preparations have been affected by a lack of EU clarity.

“Our vaccine supply schedule has not been finalized even now,” Kono said.

Japanese officials hope to launch inoculations in late February with Pfizer vaccines, some of which are produced in the EU, starting with medical workers, then elderly people and others with underlying health conditions. The general public is not expected to receive vaccines until around June, and obtaining “herd immunity” ahead of the Olympics in July is considered unlikely, especially in a country known for vaccine skepticism.

Suga has faced criticism for delaying anti-virus actions until late December, when he finally suspended government-subsidized tourism and dining promotion campaigns. He was seen as too slow to act until local leaders pleaded for government leadership. The number of new daily infections and deaths roughly doubled over one month between November and December.

Support ratings for Suga’s government have nosedived in recent polls which showed public dissatisfaction with his handling of the virus.

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