Tokyo's new coronavirus cases on Thursday topped 500 for the first time since the pandemic began, with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying Japan is on "maximum alert" and calling on people to do all they can to prevent infections.
The capital reported 534 cases, the second straight day that cases in Tokyo hit a daily record. The number is the result of 8,600 tests on Nov 16.
The highest number of cases were people in their 20s (130), followed by 110 in their 30s and 96 in their 40s. Among those hospitalized, 38 have developed serious symptoms, one down from Wednesday, according to the local government.
Nationwide, 2,363 new cases were reported as of 6:30 p.m.
Suga told reporters he wants people to wear face masks at restaurants as much as possible, taking them off only briefly to eat and drink, to reduce the infection risk, and to limit groups to a maximum of four people. He said the Go To Travel and Go To Eats campaigns will continue.
Suga also said he has instructed Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the government's coronavirus response, and health minister Norihisa Tamura to take additional measures to prevent the spread of the virus based on discussions at a two-day expert panel meeting through Friday.
The Tokyo metropolitan government, meanwhile, raised its virus alert to the highest of four levels, officials said. But it is unlikely to request restaurant owners to shorten opening hours.
The metropolitan government's highest level warns that infections are "spreading." The level four alert was last in place in the capital on Sept. 10, when it was lowered to the current level three, meaning that infections are "starting to spread."
But its alert system merely reflects the latest infection situation in the capital and has no binding force, including business closure restrictions.
In the week through Wednesday, the capital's rolling average for the number of new daily infections stood at 335, jumping from 169.3 as of Nov 1 and nearing the peak of 346.1 registered on Aug 5.
When infections surged in nightlife districts in the summer, the Tokyo government requested restaurants to shorten business hours. But officials believe such a measure will provide little help this time as many cases have been found in a wider range of age groups and across broader areas.
Medical experts have described the resurgence as a third wave of infections, saying one of the major causes is the arrival of cooler temperatures and people spending more time indoors without enough ventilation.
They also said a domestic travel promotion initiative launched by the government was partly responsible for the resurgence of new cases. The travel campaign started in July initially without Tokyo, which joined in October after the pace of new cases slowed in the capital.
Toshio Nakagawa, head of the Japan Medical Association, said that there was no concrete evidence to indicate that the Go To Travel subsidy program was responsible for the spike in cases, but noted, "There is no mistaking that it acted as a catalyst."
But Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the top government spokesman, said Thursday that there is no change in the government's position that it will continue the travel initiative to help prop up local economies.
There has also been a rapid rise of cluster infections outside urban areas, such as in Hokkaido which reported 267 cases Thursday.
In other prefectures, Osaka reported 338 cases, Aichi (219), Kanagawa (205), Hyogo (132), Chiba (106), Saitama (98), Shizuoka (61) and Okinawa (54).
Fourteen coronavirus-related deaths were reported.
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