By Lucy Craymer and Elaine Lies
WELLINGTON/TOKYO (Reuters) – A new wave of coronavirus infections is spreading rapidly across Asia, prompting residents from New Zealand to Japan to take precautions to slow the outbreak and help prevent health systems from being they look overwhelmed.
The new surge in cases, mostly of the BA.4/5 Omicron variants, presents an additional challenge for authorities dealing with the economic fallout from previous waves of the pandemic while trying to avoid extending or reintroducing unpopular restrictions.
The New Zealand government on Thursday announced free masks and rapid antigen tests in a bid to ease pressure on the country’s health system, which is dealing with an influx of COVID and influenza patients during the southern hemisphere winter.
“There is no question that the combination of a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the worst flu season in recent history, and corresponding staff absences are putting healthcare workers and the entire healthcare system on edge. under extreme pressure”, Ayesha Verrall, Minister for COVID-19. Answer, she said in a statement.
New Zealand, which has a population of 5.1 million, has nearly 69,000 currently infected with the virus. Of those, 765 cases are hospitalized, which has caused increases in waiting times and cancellations of surgeries.
In Japan, new cases of COVID-19 have risen to levels not seen since earlier this year. The government has asked people to take special care ahead of the upcoming long weekend and the impending summer school holidays.
Japan reported almost 95,000 cases on Wednesday and newly infected patients have increased 2.14-fold compared to last week, according to a government spokesman.
“The number of new cases is increasing in all prefectures in Japan and appears to be spreading rapidly,” Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto said at the start of a committee meeting on coronavirus treatment.
Tokyo raised its alert level to the highest level. “Tomorrow we will hold a working group meeting to decide the measures to be taken this summer, taking into account the national trend and the opinions of experts,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said. in a meeting.
Like New Zealand, South Korea was praised for its response early in the pandemic, but by Wednesday, daily cases there had tripled in a week to more than 39,000.
Officials and experts expect South Korea’s new daily cases to reach 200,000 between mid-August and late September and are expanding booster shots but not planning new restrictions.
Australia warned that it could be hit by its worst COVID-19 outbreak in the coming weeks fueled by the BA.4/5 Omicron variants. Officials said “millions” of new infections could be expected, but ruled out any strict restrictions to contain the spread.
“We’ve gone beyond that … we’re not in the era of lockdowns and that sort of thing,” Federal Health Minister Mark Butler told radio station 2GB on Thursday, even as he urged Australians to consider working from home again.
Australian hospital admissions are already approaching the levels seen in Omicron’s last major outbreak earlier this year, and its health system is also under pressure from high COVID and influenza numbers.
While cases in Thailand have been trending down, infections in Indonesia have risen, reaching the highest level since March.
New infections and hospitalizations in the Philippines remain low, but the government has warned that the number of cases could rise at least 20-fold by the end of the month.
Manila is urging more people to get their booster shots as Health Ministry data shows only a quarter of eligible adults have received their first booster as of July 12.
Mainland China has reported an average of more than 300 daily locally transmitted COVID infections in July, up from around 70 in June, as Beijing’s strict “COVID-zero dynamic” policy helps keep local clusters in check and has prevented the overload of hospitals.
(Reporting by Lucy Cramer in Wellington, Elaine Lies and Mariko Katsumura in Tokyo, Renju Jose in Sydney, Stanley Widianto in Jakarta, Neil Jerome Morales in Manila, Chayut Setboonsarng in Bangkok, Roxanne Liu in Beijing; Written by Lincoln Feast; Edited by Kim Coghill)