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Japan’s tightened entry rules over omicron to last into new year

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Saturday that Japan will extend its tight entry rules until at least early next year to prevent the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The government initially said the rules, banning new entry by foreign nationals worldwide and requiring returning Japanese nationals and foreign residents to quarantine in government-designated facilities, would be in place for about a month to the year’s end.

Kishida told reporters that the government will continue with the rules until more details of the omicron variant are known.

“We will study the situation after the year-end and New Year’s (holiday),” he said.

Japan reversed an easing of controls late last month as omicron spread around the world. The country has one of the world’s strictest border policies, with only citizens and foreign residents allowed to enter, in principle.

Although COVID-19 cases have fallen dramatically since a deadly wave in August, there is growing concern over the omicron variant, which has been found more than 30 times in Japan, mostly during airport screenings and quarantine.

But the threat of a community spread of the variant has grown after a woman in her 20s tested positive for omicron while she was quarantining at her home in Tokyo after arriving from Texas on Dec. 8.

The woman did not abide by the rules that she pledged to follow after entry — namely, to not come into contact with others during the isolation period. That led to the infection of a man in his 20s, who visited the woman two times last week. He tested positive for the omicron variant on Friday.

The man had developed a fever and a cough two days before attending a J. League Emperor’s Cup match at Todoroki Stadium in Kawasaki on Sunday, media reports have said, prompting authorities to scramble to reach out to about 80 people who sat near him at the game and at least 100 people who work on the same floor at his workplace.

On Thursday, the health ministry’s coronavirus advisory board urged the government to beef up protection measures at ports and airports and conduct PCR screenings to detect variants for all COVID-19 cases, on the assumption that it will spread in the country sooner or later.

So far, the government has denied that the latest cases are examples of community infection, saying they are closely monitored cases that are traceable, even if they slipped through the initial testing at airports.

On Saturday, 15 people were newly confirmed to have been infected with the omicron variant. Of them, 13 cases were detected at airport controls and two were found in Okinawa Prefecture.

One of the two cases in Okinawa is an American in her 50s who is a civilian worker at the U.S. military’s Camp Hansen. The other is her Japanese husband in his 60s. They live outside the base.

The findings follow the first confirmation of an omicron case in Okinawa on Friday, involving a Japanese worker at Camp Hansen.

It has not been confirmed whether the U.S. civilian worker and her husband had come in contact with the Japanese worker, but they were in contact with U.S. soldiers in the course of their work.

The prefectural government is rushing to conduct PCR tests on some 60 people who had close contact with the couple. Tests will also be conduced on 656 workers at the base and others.

Isolation facilities near airports in the country are filling up due to a rapid increase in the number of people who are asked to self-isolate, including those regarded as close contacts of infected people.

“It’s impossible to increase the number of isolation facilities any further,” a senior Cabinet Secretariat official said.

“We need to buy time for now,” until enough preparations are made to counter the omicron variant, including moving up the schedule for administering third COVID-19 vaccine shots and approving the use of oral drugs, an expert said.

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