American soldiers fuel omicron fear in Japan amid Covid outbreak
An outbreak at a U.S. military base in Japan is fueling concern about the omicron variant, months after the nation saw a record delta wave of infections ebb.
More than 180 people are part of the cluster at the U.S. military Camp Hansen on the island prefecture of Okinawa, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters on Monday. Though it's unclear how many, if any, of the infections were caused by the omicron variant as the military doesn't genetically sequence its cases, concern is growing that the highly transmissible new variant is spreading as two people connected to the base have been confirmed to have it.
They are an American woman in her 50s who works at Camp Hansen and her Japanese husband, who is in his 60s, the Okinawa Times reported on Sunday. The couple lives outside of the military facility. About 60 people have been identified as their close contacts.
While infection control measures such as wearing masks are in place, Japanese officials requested further restrictions on activities inside and outside the base in order to alleviate the anxiety of the local residents, Matsuno said. People who violate the rules should be punished for the infractions, he said.
Those who are diagnosed with the virus are strictly isolated on the base and their close contacts are being traced jointly with the local government, Matsuno said.
The number of cases in Japan plunged to less than 100 a day, a 17-month low, in November from a daily peak of 25,000 during the summer, despite reopening the economy in October. Well over 77% of the population of 126 million is completely vaccinated, making Japan one of the most immunized developed countries in the world.
So far the nation has seen a total of 65 cases of omicron, and most were detected at the borders. When the new variant was first identified last month, Japan halted new entry by foreigners to stop its spread, one of the most aggressive reactions globally.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to expedite a rollout of vaccine booster shots for the most vulnerable people.
It's not the first time American military bases helped the virus spread in Japan. Covid clusters emerged last year following Fourth of July celebrations when U.S. personnel visited off-base beach parties and drinking spots. The incidents led the local government to make several requests, including halting transfers of U.S. personnel to the southern island.
Okinawa is home to about half of the 54,000 U.S. personnel in Japan, and the heavy American presence has been a source of contention since the end of World War II.