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Workers in short supply amid record-high COVID-19 cases

TOKYO >> From post offices temporarily closing to train and bus operators reducing their services, the seventh wave of coronavirus infections is having a growing impact on social and economic activities across Japan.

On July 22 the government cut back the isolation period for close contacts of those with COVID-19; new rules allow an end to isolation with a negative test on the second and third days, or on the fifth day without a test. Yet businesses and medical facilities are still being stretched to the limit by labor shortages as the nation grapples with record-high numbers of new COVID-19 infections.

A customer in Edogawa ward was shocked to read a sign at a post office door recently that the branch had suspended in-person services.

“I never imagined the pandemic would affect such serv­ices,” she said. “It’s inconvenient that the post office is closed, but given the current situation, I can’t blame anybody for this.”

According to Japan Post Holdings, a growing number of employees have caught the virus or had close contact with an infected person. As of Aug. 3, 203 post offices across Japan — mainly small branches unable to find fill-in workers — had stopped in-person services.

Since July a worker shortage has led to McDonald’s Japan temporarily closing 78 of its restaurants and Starbucks Coffee Japan shutting the doors at 40 outlets.

Likewise, infections among transportation employees have resulted in a flurry of cancellations or reduced services.

Odakyu Bus cut services on some routes in the Tokyo area in mid-July, and Seibu Bus and Toei Bus followed suit in early August. Toei Bus cut eight routes because 4% of its approximately 2,500 drivers were unable to report to work.

Meanwhile, Kyushu Railway has suspended 120 limited-express services.

At medical facilities during the week of Aug. 1, a record-high 270 infection clusters were confirmed across Japan.

To address those numbers, a rules change allows medical workers who are close contacts to work if they are symptom-free and test negative each day.

But many facilities still struggle to stay minimally staffed.

On Aug. 3 at Chiba University Hospital, 4% of its workforce of about 2,800 employees was self-isolating at home. The hospital has been restricting the number of admissions to 80% of regular levels.

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