New COVID-19 cases in Japanese capital drop to lowest level in 11 months, but health officials don’t know why

Almost overnight, Japan became an astonishing and somewhat mysterious coronavirus achievement.

New daily COVID-19 cases have fallen from a peak of nearly 6,000 in mid-August in Tokyo, with the number of cases in the densely populated capital now consistently below 100, an 11-month low.

The bars are packed, the trains are packed and the mood is party, despite general bewilderment as to what exactly is behind the brutal fall.

Japan, unlike other places in Europe and Asia, has never experienced anything close to a lockdown, just a series of relatively toothless states of emergency.

Some possible factors in Japan’s success include a late but remarkably rapid vaccination campaign, emptying many nightlife areas as fears spread over the recent surge in cases, a widespread practice long before the pandemic began. wearing masks and bad weather in late August that kept people at home.

But with the gradual decline in vaccine effectiveness and winter approaching, experts fear that, without knowing exactly why cases have dropped so drastically, Japan could face another wave like this summer, when hospitals have been overflowing with severe cases and deaths have skyrocketed – although the numbers are lower than before. immunization levels.

Then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga receives his first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Tokyo on March 16. Vaccinations in Japan began in mid-February, although shortages of imported vaccines slowed progress until the end of May. (Kyodo / Reuters)

Prompt withdrawal of vaccines

Many attribute the reduction in infections to the vaccination campaign, especially among young people. Almost 70% of the population is fully vaccinated.

“The rapid and intensive vaccinations in Japan for those under 64 may have created a temporary condition similar to herd immunity,” said Dr Kazuhiro Tateda, professor of virology at Toho University.

Tateda noted that vaccination rates increased from July to September, just as the more infectious delta variant was spreading rapidly.

He warned, however, that breakthrough infections in the United States, Britain and other places where inoculations started months earlier than in Japan show that vaccines alone are not perfect and that effectiveness gradually fades.

Vaccinations in Japan began in mid-February, with health workers and the elderly on the front lines. Shortages of imported vaccines slowed progress until the end of May, when the supply stabilized and daily inoculation targets were raised to more than one million doses to maximize protection before the start. July 23-August. 8 Olympic Games.

The number of daily vaccinations rose to around 1.5 million in July, dropping vaccination rates from 15% in early July to 65% in early October, exceeding 57 percent of the United States.

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Declining positivity rate

New daily cases rose just weeks before the Olympics, forcing Japan to host the Games with daily workloads of more than 5,000 in Tokyo and around 20,000 nationwide in early August. Tokyo reported 40 cases on Sunday, less than 100 for the ninth consecutive day and the lowest this year. Nationwide, Japan reported 429 cases on Sunday for a cumulative total of around 1.71 million and 18,000 deaths since the pandemic began early last year.

So why the fall?

“This is a difficult question, and we have to consider the effect of the progress of vaccinations, which is extremely important,” said the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Norio Ohmagari. “At the same time, people who congregate in high-risk environments, such as crowded and less ventilated places, may have already been infected and have gained natural immunity by now.”

Although some have speculated that the drop in the number of cases could be due to fewer tests, data from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government showed that the positivity rate fell from 25% in late August to 1% in mid -October, while the number of tests fell by a third. . Masataka Inokuchi, deputy head of the Tokyo Medical Association, said falling positivity rates show infections have slowed.

Japan’s state of emergency measures were not closures but demands that mainly focused on bars and restaurants, which were to close early and not serve alcohol. Many people continued to travel on crowded trains and attended sporting and cultural events in stadiums with physical distancing checks.

Emergency demands have ended and the government is gradually expanding social and economic activity while allowing sporting events and organized trips on a trial basis using vaccination certificates and increased testing.

A visitor prays in front of an incense burner at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa in Tokyo on Monday. Data from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government showed the COVID-19 positivity rate fell from 25% in late August to 1% in mid-October. (Eugene Hoshiko / The Associated Press)

“Future resurgence” warnings

To speed up vaccinations, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who recently stepped down, increased the number of health workers legally allowed to administer vaccines, opened large-scale vaccination centers and promoted vaccinations across the country. workplace from the end of June.

Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura told a recent government advisory board meeting that he estimated the vaccinations had helped some 650,000 people avoid infection and saved more than 7,200 lives. between March and September.

Many experts initially accused young people, seen drinking on the streets and in parks when bars were closed, of spreading the virus, but said data showed many in their 40s and 40s. In their fifties, they also frequented the nightlife districts. The most serious cases and deaths were in unvaccinated people in their 50s or younger.

Takaji Wakita, director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, recently told reporters he was concerned people have already resumed partying in nightlife districts, noting that the slowdown in infections may have already bottomed out. .

“Going forward, it is important to further reduce the number of cases in the event of a future resurgence of infections,” Wakita said Thursday.

New Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Friday that a preparedness plan to be developed by early November would include tighter limits on activities and require hospitals to provide more beds and staff for COVID-19 treatment in case infections increase in the “worst case”. “He didn’t give details.

Further investigation called for

Many people are reluctant to let their guard down, regardless of the number.

Wearing the mask “has become so normal,” college student Mizuki Kawano said.

“I am still worried about the virus,” she said.

“I don’t want to go near those who don’t wear masks,” said her friend, Alice Kawaguchi.

Public health experts want a full investigation into why infections have declined.

Analysis of GPS data showed that people’s movements in major downtown entertainment districts declined during the third most recent state of emergency, which ended on September 30.

“I think the decrease in the number of people visiting entertainment districts, along with advances in immunization, have contributed to the decline in infections,” said Atsushi Nishida, director of the Center for Research for Social and Medical Sciences of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Sciences. .

But people returned to the entertainment districts as soon as the recent emergency ended, he said, and that could “affect the infection situation in the weeks to come.”