Japan to completely lift COVID-19 restrictions as infections slow

TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday announced plans to completely lift coronavirus restrictions on March 21 as new infections caused by the highly contagious omicron variant slow.

COVID-19 restrictions currently in place in 18 prefectures, including the Tokyo area, will end on Monday as scheduled, Kishida told a news conference on Wednesday, as his government seeks to cautiously expand consumer activity to help the badly affected economy recover. on track.

It will be the first time Japan has been free of virus restrictions since early January.

The number of daily cases has steadily declined in Japan in recent weeks after hitting new highs above 100,000 in early February. New cases have dropped by about half.

While omicron causes mild symptoms in most people and the death rate remains low, the latest wave is the deadliest yet in Japan as the total number of patients was several times higher than during the waves. previous ones. Yet deaths in Japan total around 26,000 since the pandemic began two years ago, significantly lower than many other countries.

Most of the victims were elderly patients whose underlying illnesses worsened rapidly after contracting the virus, experts said.

Kishida has been criticized for delaying booster injections until all municipalities are ready, allowing the virus to spread rapidly across the country.

His government has since opened mass vaccination centers to speed up the booster program. About 72% of people aged 65 or over received their third shot, but overall booster shots only reached a third of the population.

Experts urge caution after restrictions are lifted due to the possibility of a resurgence in infections. A subvariant of omicron is gradually replacing the main strain nationwide.

In some areas, hospital bed occupancy rates are still over 50% and oral antiviral pills are not reaching as many people as expected. Although the Kishida government has pledged to secure millions of doses of the two imported oral pills, they are not widely used. One is rather large and difficult to swallow, and another cannot be combined with many other drugs.

Ongoing COVID-19 restrictions are largely limited to restaurants, where shorter hours of service are requested. The general public is also urged to work from home and avoid parties and large events, as well as wear masks in public places and follow other basic anti-virus measures.