BY KANAKO TAKAHARA, STAFF WRITER
Japan is starting to see a decline in daily new COVID-19 cases — a major relief after infections rose exponentially in the past month — but experts say it’s still too early for people to let their guard down, especially since past waves have shown that critical cases and deaths continue to rise well after daily cases peak.
“The growth in the number of severely ill patients is likely to continue for a while” even if the number of new infections passes its peak, said Shigeru Omi, chairman of the government’s coronavirus subcommittee, during a Lower House committee session Monday.
He also expressed concern that the number of fatalities linked to COVID-19 may increase due to a recent series of infection clusters at facilities for elderly people.
Daily new cases nationwide declined week-on-week in the three days through Monday, which saw 60,085 new cases, according to the health ministry. But 1,403 COVID-19 patients were in a critical condition that day, up from 1,141 a week before, while 135 deaths were reported, an increase from 122 the prior Monday.
A health ministry advisory panel on the coronavirus stated in a report last week that there was about a two-week delay from when cases peaked in Okinawa Prefecture, one of the first areas to see infections begin to rise in the latest wave, and when the number of hospitalized patients there began to decline.
Compared with the fifth wave of the pandemic, the latest wave has seen more deaths but fewer patients in need of critical care.
The daily number of deaths has been nearly twice the amount at the height of the fifth wave last summer — a peak of 89 deaths was reported Sept. 8, compared with a record 175 on Thursday.
But the number of patients reported on a given day to be in a critical condition — most of them elderly — is about half of what it was at the height of the fifth wave, when the figure topped 2,000 from late August to mid-September.
With most patients only having mild or no symptoms, the number of infected people recovering at home hit a record 543,045 on Feb. 9, up about 100,000 from the previous week, the health ministry said Monday.
To focus medical resources on patients needing critical care, the health ministry has said that when younger people with a lower risk of developing severe symptoms test positive using a home test kit, they can self-isolate at home without needing to seek medical attention.
Even as daily new cases start to decline in some prefectures that are currently under a quasi-emergency, governors are contemplating whether to ask the central government for an extension. Quasi-emergencies in 21 prefectures are set to expire Sunday, and the government will decide whether or not to extend the measures later this week.
So far, many governors have indicated they plan to ask for the quasi-emergency measures to be extended. But the Okinawa Times local daily reported Tuesday that Gov. Denny Tamaki will not seek an extension, given that numbers of new cases are declining.