Tokyo puts forward new virus monitoring guidelines as cases rise

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike is slated to announce Tuesday night a revision to the city’s coronavirus monitoring guidelines, which are referenced when deciding whether social distancing, business closure requests and other virus countermeasures need to be restored.

The original guidelines put forward in May focused on new and untraceable cases measured on a weekly basis, as well as the number of COVID-19 patients in the city’s hospitals. The new guidelines, according to media reports, will continue to reference case numbers but will shift the emphasis to the city’s health care system and whether hospitals are capable of accepting more patients.

In May, Koike said she would consider reissuing business closure requests if the weekly average of new cases exceeds 50, more than half were untraceable or new cases increased in comparison to the week prior.

When the city’s plan was first announced in May, experts said the guidelines — which can prompt the metropolitan government to issue a Tokyo Alert, an alarm system that would attempt to warn residents through television broadcasts and illuminating major landmarks in red — are at best vague and most likely superficial.

On Monday, Tokyo reported 58 additional cases of coronavirus infection, with the weekly average of daily new cases at 51.9, more than half of which were untraceable.

The shift in monitoring criteria comes after a weeklong surge in new cases, a significant portion of which are emerging among young people in their 20s and 30s. A growing number of infections can be traced back to clusters in host and hostess clubs and other nightlife destinations.

Younger COVID-19 patients are more likely to be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, which means they can be isolated at hotels and other designated facilities instead of being hospitalized. As of Monday, 272 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized for every 1,000 beds, and 12 patients with severe symptoms were hospitalized per 100 beds available.

The city’s decision to put forward new guidelines could be seen as an appropriate response to the ever-changing nature of this mercurial virus. But the approaching gubernatorial election on Sunday — in which Koike is seeking re-election — is drawing accusations that the city is loosening monitoring guidelines to placate voters.

But Koike already has an advantage in the election and doesn’t need this to win, said Kenneth McElwain, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Sciences.

“The guidelines were unrealistic to begin with,” he said. “The governor’s only choice, at this point, was to move the goal posts.”

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