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Coronavirus

Suga plays it safe to avoid Japan's third virus emergency

Health ministry meets Friday on Pfizer vaccine with eye on starting inoculations

New cases have generally declined since the start of the year, but more than 50% of hospital beds available to COVID-19 patients remain occupied.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has decided to err on the side of caution on lifting the coronavirus state of emergency, focusing first on containment to avoid declaring yet another emergency later.

Ten prefectures, including Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, are slated to remain under the state of emergency until March 7.

There had been suggestions that the government lift it earlier than planned, in light of new legislation taking effect Saturday granting governors greater authority to enforce social distancing and other restrictions even outside states of emergency.

But Suga in recent weeks had repeatedly expressed concerns about the idea. Relying on this new framework "could be confusing," he had told those close to him, arguing that areas where the state of emergency is lifted could see cases spike.

While new cases have been in a downtrend since the start of the year, more than 50% of hospital beds available to COVID-19 patients remained occupied in seven of the 10 prefectures as of Tuesday.

The government will host an expert panel Friday on pandemic response. It has decided not to propose lifting the state of emergency there but still hopes to end it ahead of schedule in prefectures that successfully curb the outbreak.

"We need to reduce case numbers to the point where we can avoid a fourth wave of infections," Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa has said.

A Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare panel meets Friday on Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine. If it is approved for use in Japan, health care workers here could start receiving it as early as Wednesday -- roughly two months after their counterparts in the U.K. and the U.S.

Japan is particularly interested in ensuring that case numbers do not spike in March and April, when final decisions will be made on the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. A top priority is to fully lift the state of emergency as planned before the upcoming session of the International Olympic Committee starts March 10.

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