American soldiers fuel Omicron fear in Japan amid Covid-19 outbreak

Many Japanese officials believe the recent Covid-19 clusters originated from infected American service members coming into contact with local residents. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM GOOGLE MAPS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - A Covid-19 outbreak at a United States military base in Japan is fuelling concern about the Omicron variant, months after the nation saw a record Delta wave of infections ebb.

More than 180 people are part of the cluster at the US military Camp Hansen on the island prefecture of Okinawa, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters on Monday (Dec 20).

Though it is unclear how many, if any, of the infections were caused by the Omicron variant, as the military does not genetically sequence its cases, concern is growing that the highly transmissible new variant is spreading, as two people connected to the base have been confirmed to have it.

They are an American woman in her 50s who works at Camp Hansen and her Japanese husband, who is in his 60s, the Okinawa Times reported on Sunday.

The couple lives outside of the military facility. About 60 people have been identified as their close contacts.

While infection control measures such as wearing masks are in place, Japanese officials requested further restrictions on activities inside and outside the base in order to alleviate the anxiety of the local residents, Mr Matsuno said.

People who violate the rules should be punished for the infractions, he said.

Those who are diagnosed with the virus are strictly isolated on the base and their close contacts are being traced jointly with the local government, Mr Matsuno said.

The number of cases in Japan plunged to fewer than 100 a day, a 17-month low, in November from a daily peak of 25,000 during the summer, despite reopening the economy in October.

Well over 77 per cent of the population of 126 million are completely vaccinated, making Japan one of the most immunised developed countries in the world.

So far, the nation has seen a total of 65 cases of Omicron, and most were detected at the borders.

When the new variant was first identified last month, Japan halted new entry by foreigners to stop its spread, one of the most aggressive reactions globally. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to expedite a roll-out of vaccine booster shots for the most vulnerable people.

It is not the first time American military bases helped the virus spread in Japan.

Covid-19 clusters emerged last year following Fourth of July celebrations when US personnel visited off-base beach parties and drinking spots. The incidents led the local government to make several requests, including halting transfers of US personnel to the southern island.

Okinawa is home to about half of the 54,000 US personnel in Japan, and the heavy American presence has been a source of contention since the end of World War II.

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