Japan braces for fourth wave

Prefectures across Japan are seeing yet another spike in coronavirus cases. Some governors warn that the country is entering a fourth wave of infection.

The western prefecture of Osaka reported 213 cases on Monday. This is the highest figure for a Monday in over two months. The prefecture lifted its emergency declaration on February 28 and infection numbers have been creeping up since.

"The growing number of untraceable cases suggests that Osaka is at the start of an outbreak that is spreading through community transmission," says Osaka governor Yoshimura Hirofumi. "We believe this will be the fourth wave of infection."

Yoshimura plans to ask the central government to grant him the authority to implement stronger preventive measures without declaring another state of emergency. These could include fines for businesses that refuse to close early.

Graph: COVID-19 Daily Cases in Osaka

Tokyo is also experiencing a resurgence of infections just one week after lifting its state of emergency. The Metropolitan Government confirmed 234 new cases on Monday, the tenth straight day that the daily tally was higher than a week earlier. It was also the first Monday in March that the figure topped 200.

Graph: COVID-19 Daily Cases in Tokyo

Cases spread across country

It’s not only major urban areas where the virus is spreading. The northeastern prefectures of Yamagata and Miyagi are both seeing spikes. In response, the local governments are asking restaurants in the prefectural capitals to shorten their operating hours.

Yamagata governor Yoshimura Mieko is calling on residents of her prefecture to avoid non-essential travel to Miyagi. The two regions have close economic ties. She says the priority is to prevent a collapse of the medical care system, and urged for the cooperation of residents and businesses.

Nakanome Chiyuki, the head of the Yamagata Medical Association, says the prefecture is struggling to manage.

"We don’t have medical resources here like they do in big cities," he says. "We already had to postpone regular hospital visits and surgeries. Yamagata is on the brink of a crisis."

Graph: COVID-19 Daily Cases in Miyagi and Yamagata

Vaccines won’t prevent surge

Japan’s vaccine rollout will begin in earnest next month. Healthcare workers at medical institutions across the country have been receiving shots since February, but the government will start administering the vaccine to the general public next month. It begins with the elderly on April 12.

But a group of researchers at the University of Tsukuba warns that the vaccine will have little effect on infection rates during the initial months of the rollout. The team used artificial intelligence to project how cases would rise in Tokyo.

The study found that without vaccines, the capital would experience a peak of about 1,850 new cases per day in mid-May. If 35,000 elderly citizens are vaccinated every day, the peak figure would drop to about 1,650. That represents a dip of just 10.8 percent from the no-vaccine projection.

If the government ramps up vaccines to 115,000 per day, new cases would peak at about 1,540 – a 16.8 percent decrease from the no-vaccine figure.

Professor Kurahashi Setsuya, who led the project, predicts the effects of the vaccine on overall case numbers will not start to become evident until July, even if the rollout goes smoothly. He says people must not let their guard down, and continue to observe proper preventive guidelines.

"It’s important to continue following basic anti-virus measures," he says. "They remain the best way to prevent infections."