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Japan's offices, schools and nurseries become COVID hotbeds

Virulent new strains slip past spotty vigilance and mixed messages on restrictions

Commuter board a subway train in Tokyo. Office spaces have now become the main type of location of coronavirus infection in Japan.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Workplaces and schools are emerging as hot spots for infection in Japan's latest wave of COVID-19 cases, moving beyond the hospitals and senior care facilities that had been the main sources of spread.

Not even the health ministry is immune. An outbreak that infected at least 29 was traced to a widely attended late-night party in late March that involved plenty of sharing of food and drinks. The event was connected to the ministry's Health and Welfare Bureau for the Elderly. The coronavirus is believed to have entered the bureau as early as midmonth and to have spread through shared spaces and equipment, such as restrooms, drinking fountains and telephones.

The ministry logged 463 outbreaks of at least five people not tied to households from April 1 to April 23, and 96 of these were linked to workplaces -- more than any other category. This is roughly double the share in January, the month with the largest number of coronavirus clusters.

Meetings can be a source of infections, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. It notes a case in which a woman in her 50s attended a meeting the day before she showed symptoms. Three people developed the disease within four days after the meeting and three more within seven to 12 days. An additional two more people who did not participate in the meeting were connected with the infection, resulting in total of nine people whoeventually became ill because of the event.

The trend raises questions about the effectiveness of Japan's efforts to curb the virus through steps like the state of emergency in Tokyo and other prefectures, which was extended Friday through the end of May. Many members of the public are letting their guard down as the pandemic and emergency declarations become part of their everyday lives.

Compounding the problem are highly contagious variants, against which the usual defenses may prove less effective.

"With the standard version, it's been noted that the 'three C's' -- close spaces, crowded places and close contact -- create a high risk of infection," said Atsuro Hamada, a professor at Tokyo Medical University. "But with the variants, there have been cases reported of people being infected even without all three, such as from close contact outdoors."

Reports indicate people have contracted the virus outdoors even while wearing masks, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the government's coronavirus point man, told reporters Sunday.

New clusters appear in Tokyo almost daily, including 41 cases linked to a university athlete dormitory and 75 at a nursing home.

"Trends in infections with virus variants, such as age, overlap with overall infections," a city representative said.

As variants gain a foothold and cases skew younger, more outbreaks are occurring in settings once considered relatively safe. Schools and educational facilities accounted for 13% of clusters in April -- a larger share than in previous waves -- with about half of these tied to day care and similar sites for young children.

People walk in Tokyo's Shinagawa Station on May 7.   © Kyodo

School clubs and athletics pose a particular problem, such as with one outbreak linked to a high school girls volleyball team in Kochi Prefecture.

Younger people also appear more at risk of serious illness than with the standard strain. In Osaka, where variants are raging, about one-third of severely ill patients between March 1 and May 2 were 50 or younger -- nearly double the proportion during the previous wave from October to February.

Restricting movement is crucial to curbing the spread of the virus, but many small businesses are reaching the limits of their ability to respond.

Tokyo-based Kamijima Heat Treatment continues to have all of its roughly 45 employees attend work in person even during the state of emergency. The company tries to avoid crowding, such as by reducing overtime and spreading out use of the employee cafeteria.

But "we're a manufacturing company, so it's not physically possible to work from home," President Hidemi Kamijima said.

The central government's approach contains contradictions. Even as Japan extended the state of emergency, it is relaxing some restrictions, boosting capacity caps at big shopping centers and allowing spectators to attend events.

"The government has been responding reactively," said Keiji Kanda, senior economist at Daiwa Institute of Research. Kanda predicts a rise in cases around mid-June as looser restrictions entice some traffic to return.

"With the way the administration is presenting its policies now, it's not clear how much the public needs to do," Hamada said.

"They need to set targets, such as reducing new cases" down from the highest level in the government's four-stage scale, he argued. "It would be best to have goals for individual municipalities."

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