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Coronavirus

Nightlife drives Tokyo's new coronavirus surge

Experts urge intense screening at hot spots as untraceable cases rise

Workers in Shinjuku's Kabukicho nightlife district account for a large portion of those who tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan's apparent success in containing the coronavirus has come into question after two straight days of over 100 new infections in Tokyo that were largely attributed to nightlife establishments where patrons and workers come into close contact.

The capital reported 124 new cases on Friday, the highest tally since the country's state of emergency ended in late May. Patients skewed young, with people in their 20s and 30s accounting for 80% of the total. And 48 were detected in the Shinjuku area, where bars and clubs are concentrated. 

In particular, hostess bars and "host clubs" where women come to be entertained by young male staff have been singled out as hot spots for coronavirus clusters. Many infections were traced to establishments where "food and drinks are provided along with company," in the words of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Speaking to reporters, Gov. Yuriko Koike cited increased testing of young people as a factor behind the rise. But the large number of infections without obvious transmission routes -- making up about 30% of Friday's cases -- is "worrying," she said.

She also met with operators of bars and restaurants in Ikebukuro, another known nightlife district, and asked them to let workers take polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests for the coronavirus. 

Koike, however, sounded cautious about issuing a business closure request. "I will make a decision if a state of emergency is declared by the central government," she said. "I will protect the economy while protecting the lives of Tokyo residents."

Japan confirmed 238 new cases nationwide Friday as of 9 p.m., the first total above 200 since May 3. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke Friday with Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister heading Japan's coronavirus response, and the two agreed that a second emergency declaration was not warranted at this time.

"Test positivity rates and the strain on medical systems are very different from when the declaration was imposed in April," a government insider said. "This can't be called a second wave."

But experts are increasingly alarmed.

"It's not just that the number of positives is up because testing has increased," said Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center. "We need to pay attention to the rise in [infected patients] without a clear contact history."

Tokyo averaged 27.1 untraceable cases per day in the week through July 1, up 60% from the previous week.

"That indicates the possibility of growing community transmission," Ohmagari said, adding that the same rate of growth would result in 160 untraceable infections daily after four weeks and 1,080 in eight weeks.

Japan has yet to fully address its persistent dearth of testing. Daily capacity for PCR tests totaled about 30,000 as of Tuesday. Tokyo has raised testing to around 2,000 per day, but that level has not kept pace with the upswing in cases.

Experts urge intensive screening in high-risk occupations and areas where new cases are concentrated. 

Focused testing "could halt the spread," said Atsuo Hamada, a professor at Tokyo Medical University Hospital.

Mitsuyoshi Urashima, a professor of molecular epidemiology at Jikei University School of Medicine, also argued for a targeted response.

"Requesting a Tokyo-wide business shutdown would do severe economic damage and be inefficient," he said. "It's better to take steps such as compensating [businesses] that shut down after a positive test."

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