TOKYO - Tokyo reported more than 10,000 Covid-19 cases in a single day for the first time on Saturday (Jan 22), just three weeks after the Japanese capital was reporting double-digit tallies.
There were 11,227 new infections in Tokyo, which broke its daily tally for the fourth day in a row. Officials said 90 per cent of its cases are now of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
One-day tallies fell in as many as 30 out of Japan's 47 prefectures on Saturday, as the country recorded 54,576 cases nationwide. There were 17 deaths.
This was the fifth straight day where records were shattered, with Japan crossing 50,000 cases in a single day for the first time.
The figure is more than twice the Delta wave high of 25,996 infections in August last year. Japan crossed 30,000 cases for the first time on Jan 18, and then 40,000 cases a day later.
Yet despite the unprecedented surge, there were 424 patients in severe condition on Saturday, including 12 in Tokyo. This is still a fraction of the record 2,223 patients in serious condition nationwide during the Delta wave.
This data point - if kept manageable - will help inform Japan's leaders in their policy-making over how best to coexist with Covid-19.
The conundrum over how far to relax curbs may be universal, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida faces a delicate balancing act in an election year.
His two predecessors, Mr Shinzo Abe and Mr Yoshihide Suga, were effectively done in by perceptions of abject Covid-19 management.
Mr Kishida's approval ratings had soared in polls earlier this month, but a survey by the Mainichi daily released on Saturday showed support falling by two percentage points from last month's rating to a nonetheless healthy 52 per cent.
His government is mulling over whether the status of Covid-19 should be downgraded so that hospitals can be allowed to treat it as endemic-like influenza.
But Mr Kishida now still prefers to err on the side of caution over fears that the massive Omicron caseload could yet overwhelm hospitals.
Sixteen out of 47 prefectures are now under a quasi-emergency, with the measure taking effect from Friday (Jan 21) until Feb 13 in 13 prefectures that cover cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya.
This relies on voluntary compliance to government requests, especially for food and beverage businesses to open for shorter hours, in exchange for daily support grants. There are no legal punishments due to constitutional restraints.
Yet early evidence shows that the quasi-emergency may not be effective against the Omicron variant. It has been two weeks since the measure took effect in Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi on Jan 9, but Covid-19 shows no signs of abating.
Hiroshima and Yamaguchi set fresh highs on Saturday, while Okinawa still logged more than 1,000 cases.
Still, Mr Kishida is set to approve the expansion of the quasi-emergency to more regions in the coming days, as governors of at least 14 other prefectures including Hokkaido, Osaka and Kyoto seek curbs with their daily records tumbling.
This means as many as 30 prefectures could soon come under the measure in a bid to stave off the need for a full-fledged state of emergency.
In Tokyo, 34.3 per cent of hospital beds for Covid-19 patients were occupied, with local officials saying they will seek an emergency declaration with stricter restrictions once the figure hits 50 per cent.
As at Friday, 78.7 per cent of Japan's population have been vaccinated twice, though only 1.5 per cent have received their booster dose, figures from the Prime Minister's Office show. Also on Friday, Japan approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for children aged five to 11.