Photo/Illutration Even establishments that normally operate around the clock shut down at 8 p.m. in Shizuoka in August. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The government is on the verge of lifting COVID-19-related restrictions around Japan, but experts warn that some limits are still needed to avoid devastating consequences from the inevitable next wave of infections.

Most experts on infectious diseases predict that “the sixth wave will definitely come.” How the public and government officials prepare for life after the lifting of the state of emergency on Sept. 30 will largely determine the severity of the wave, they said.

In winter, doors and windows are usually closed to keep out the cold, but this reduces ventilation in buildings and increases the chances of the contagion to spread.

Last winter, the third wave of infections severely strained medical care systems, particularly in Tokyo, where there were not enough hospital beds to treat COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms.

Many Western countries started their vaccine rollouts earlier than Japan, and their populations are now trying to find ways to live with the novel coronavirus.

Residents in those countries are increasingly not wearing facial masks outdoors, only putting them when they enter businesses and other buildings.

However, the number of new COVID-19 cases per population in the United States and Britain remains around twentyfold the figure in Japan.

Yuki Furuse, an associate professor at Kyoto University who specializes in infectious diseases, proposed one scenario that would help Japan avoid the crisis levels experienced in the West.

He assumed that the vaccination rate in Japan will soon reach 85 percent for people aged 60 or older, 70 percent for those 40 to 59 years old, and 60 percent for people in the 20 to 39 age bracket.

If people reduce their human contact to half of the pre-pandemic levels, the number of COVID-19-related deaths over 150 days would be about the same as the estimated 10,000 annual deaths caused by seasonal influenza, he said.

Under that scenario, people in Japan could find hope for a “co-existence” with the novel coronavirus because medical care systems would not be pushed to the brink of collapse.

However, halving contact with others could require the government to ask the public to continue wearing masks and avoiding crowds. In addition, restrictions on the business hours of restaurants and bars as well as reduced crowd sizes at entertainment events may also be necessary, Furuse said.

That would mean restrictions in Japan will not be relaxed to the levels in Western countries.

“Even after the state of emergency is lifted, a certain level of restrictions should be kept in place to curb foot traffic and cut the business hours of eating and drinking establishments along with some other measures,” said Atsuo Hamada, a specially appointed professor at Tokyo Medical University Hospital Traveller’s Medical Center.

The government plans to allow businesses to ask customers for vaccination certificates and negative PCR test results from November to accelerate the economy. It will conduct a demonstration test in October.

Hamada said these measures should also help to curb COVID-19 cases during the sixth wave.

“While the vaccine rollout should progress further, especially among young generations, basic anti-virus measures, such as wearing facial masks, should be maintained for at least half a year or even a full year from now,” he said.