Photo/Illutration Shigeru Omi, who heads a government expert panel on the COVID-19 pandemic, speaks to reporters on July 11. (Anri Takahashi)

Japan has entered a seventh wave of novel coronavirus infections, a government expert indicated, as Osaka Prefecture also issued its first “yellow alert” regarding rising cases since May 22.

“It’s difficult to define (the start of a wave), but we’re definitely seeing a new wave of infections,” Shigeru Omi, who heads a government expert panel on the COVID-19 pandemic, told reporters on July 11.

He made the comment after briefing Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the current infection situation.

Omi attributed a recent spike in new cases to the highly transmissible BA.5 Omicron subvariant and waning immunity among those who were vaccinated against the virus.

However, Omi said he told Kishida that he does not think the government needs to take anti-virus steps, including COVID-19 pre-emergency measures, to restrict people's movements at this point. 

Omi said he told the prime minister the country could ride out the seventh wave by conducting more virus tests, promoting vaccinations and urging the public to thoroughly ventilate rooms.

Omi added that he and Kishida did not discuss whether the government can accept more foreign tourists or launch a domestic tourism-promotion campaign, which would provide subsidies to encourage travel across prefectural borders.

The government is set to announce by mid-July whether to start the new travel subsidy program.

Osaka Prefecture decided at its COVID-19 task force meeting on July 11 to issue a yellow alert to call for vigilance against a surge in new cases.

“We have entered the seventh wave,” Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura told reporters.

The prefecture reported 30,360 new infections over the week through July 10, 2.17 times the figure from the previous week.

The occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients stood at 21.3 percent in the prefecture as of July 11, exceeding 20 percent, or the threshold for issuing the yellow alert.

Only 0.8 percent of beds for those in serious condition were filled, however.

Omicron subvariants are becoming the dominant strains in the prefecture as the highly contagious BA.5 or BA.4 subvariants were apparently detected in roughly 26.9 percent of samples taken recently from COVID-19 patients.

The COVID-19 task force also decided to ask residents to refrain from visiting their loved ones at facilities for elderly people, in principle.

“Based on lessons learned during the sixth wave, we’ll take extra precautions against the virus at facilities for elderly people and medical institutions that treat many senior citizens,” Yoshimura said.

The prefectural government is urging residents to stay vigilant as cases will likely continue to increase for some time due to an expected rise in the infection risk during the summer holidays and the Bon holiday season in mid-August.

(This article was compiled from reports by Anri Takahashi and Koshin Mukai.)