Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Thursday that the government will offer free COVID-19 tests to everyone in areas where the omicron variant of the coronavirus is feared to be spreading, including Osaka, Kyoto and Okinawa prefectures. Kishida made the announcement during a lecture organized by the Research Institute of Japan, after the country's first community-acquired cases of the omicron variant were confirmed in Osaka on Wednesday. The institute is affiliated with Jiji Press. More community-acquired omicron cases were reported in Osaka and Kyoto on Thursday, while a large cluster of coronavirus infections has emerged at the U.S. military's Camp Hansen in Okinawa. "In Osaka, Kyoto and Okinawa, anxiety is growing" among local residents, Kishida said. "In areas facing the need to take measures to contain the omicron variant, we'll conduct free tests on all people who feel uneasy."
The omicron variant of the coronavirus is projected to account for 90% of new COVID-19 cases in Osaka Prefecture in mid-January, according to an analysis shown at a meeting of a health ministry advisory board on Tuesday. Osaka's proportion of omicron cases is expected to top 90% on Jan. 11, according to the analysis by Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura and other experts. The effective reproduction number, or the average number of people infected by a single carrier, for the omicron variant is estimated to be 2.64 times that of the delta strain on Jan. 11, according to the experts. The advisory board warned that the number of people who need to be hospitalized may increase rapidly due to the spread of the omicron variant. While omicron has been shown to have a lower risk of causing serious symptoms, its transmissibility is cause for concern, the advisory board said.
Infections of the omicron variant of the coronavirus have been reported across 22 out of 47 prefectures in Japan, a tally based on local government reports showed Thursday, one month after the first domestic case was confirmed. Around 500 people have been infected with the highly transmissible variant nationwide, according to the reports, fueling concern about a potential resurgence of COVID-19 infections during and after the year-end and New Year's holiday period and its impact on the medical system. Most of the omicron cases have been detected in quarantine. But community transmission of the variant has also been reported in urban areas, including Tokyo and Osaka. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called on the public the same day to take extra precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as people start traveling across Japan for the holiday period.
As Japan starts to cast a wider net to prevent spread of the omicron COVID-19 variant, central and local governments are scrambling to ensure there are enough quarantine facilities for those who have come in close contact with people confirmed as infected with the highly transmissible virus. On Tuesday, the government instructed all omicron close contacts to be quarantined at a facility monitored by central or local government officials for 14 days. Until now, close contacts had been allowed to quarantine in their homes. "The health ministry notified prefectural governments today to start making preparations early on to make sure they can handle a rapid rise in infections," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno on Wednesday. "With this, we hope to have the necessary system in place."
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Sunday instructed the education ministry to come up with ways on how students who have been in close contact with those infected by the omicron COVID-19 variant can safely take school entrance examinations without putting others at risk, sources close to Kishida said. Options may include allowing such people to take tests in separate rooms, according to the sources. Kishida's instructions came at a time when community-acquired omicron infection cases are starting to spread around the country. With less than a month to go until the Jan. 15-16 unified university entrance exams organized by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, the ministry will rush to study specific measures with experts and announce a decision by the end of the year, the sources said. The first case in Japan of the highly transmissible variant was confirmed in late November, and community-acquired omicron cases have since been found in prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka.