Japan identifies 15 clusters as Covid-19 cases mount

Passersby wearing masks are seen on the street at Susukino district in Sapporo, Japan, on Feb 26, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Japan has identified 15 coronavirus clusters nationwide in its first "cluster map", released on Monday (March 16), as infections continue to rise across the country.

The biggest cluster, which accounts for more than 80 cases, involves four live music venues in Osaka. Another live house in Sapporo was also identified as a cluster, dealing a blow to these small-sized establishments as the music industry hits the pause button on gigs.

Nagoya city officials say a cluster tied to a sports gym is waning though they are struggling to cope with another expanding cluster tied to an elderly daycare home.

The analysis by Tohoku University virology professor Hitoshi Oshitani, who is on a government panel of medical experts, comes as Japan ramps up contact tracing efforts with a focus on "active epidemiological investigation".

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a news conference last Saturday that the key to controlling the outbreak was to swiftly locate clusters and quickly get people tested.

This approach means it has not maxed out its testing capacity, with just 19,420 samples tested altogether as of March 6. This is despite Japan's ability to test up to 6,000 samples a day - a figure that is expected to go up to 8,000 by the end of this month.

Medical institutions are now allowed to buy testing kits that can detect the virus in 15 minutes, down from six hours that is required in a polymerase chain reaction test.

Still, the Japanese government is unlikely to change its current guidelines, which advise those with flu symptoms but no known links to previous cases to self-isolate and seek medical help only if a high fever persists for four days. This is so as to avoid overwhelming hospitals.

But this approach, which differs from countries like South Korea, has called into doubt whether the reported tally was in fact a gross understatement of the ground reality.

There were 833 cases, including 28 deaths, as of 9pm on Monday, according to a tally by public broadcaster NHK. These were found in 36 out of Japan's 47 prefectures.

Another 712 cases, with seven deaths, were found on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Yokohama last month.

About 100 territories have imposed entry bans or conditions on those with recent travel history to Japan, which has been the source of imported cases in several places.

While Mr Abe was criticised for his indifference in the early days of the crisis, he appears to have regained public trust with more aggressive measures of late.

A weekend poll by Kyodo News showed approval for his Cabinet surging to 49.7 per cent from last month's 41 per cent.

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