Photo/Illutration The departure lobby at Haneda Airport in Tokyo is packed with passengers returning to their hometowns on Dec. 28. (Sayuri Ide)

The public is being urged to refrain if possible from traveling during the year-end and New Year holiday period due to fears of a spike in infections of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. 

Despite that advice, hordes of people are traveling, mostly to visit their hometowns, an annual tradition.

Members of a panel of experts advising the health ministry on the health crisis said during a Dec. 28 meeting they were bracing for a surge in new cases.

The panel said the public needed to know that the focus had shifted from keeping Omicron at bay to preventing a further spread of the variant in Japan.

“The same anti-virus measures we’ve taken are necessary to prevent infections with the Omicron variant,” Takaji Wakita, the head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who chairs the panel, said at a news conference. “We haven’t yet discussed whether to restrict people’s movements.”

The panel said the number of new coronavirus infections is “very low” nationwide at 1.3 fresh cases per 100,000 people over the most recent seven-day period.

But it noted the figure is trending upward, particularly in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, adding that nighttime foot traffic in the capital remains high.

The panel also took note of the fact that all cases of the variant showed mild or no symptoms, indicating that patients with Omicron are less likely to become seriously ill than those with the Delta variant as reported in overseas studies.

But the panel warned that a spike in Omicron cases could overwhelm the health care system with a rise in the number of inpatients. It also cautioned that patients could fall seriously ill and even die if the variant spreads among those with a high risk of developing severe symptoms.

The panel recommended that people going on trips travel in small groups and refrain from engaging in activities that pose a high infection risk, not only while traveling but also before and after the excursions.

It also advised those planning to meet people with a high risk of developing serious symptoms to undergo virus tests beforehand, even if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.