US Forces Japan contemplates ‘carrots for jabs’ as bases report four new virus cases
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TOKYO — U.S. military commands in Japan reported four new coronavirus cases as of 6 p.m. Friday as the daily count in the capital city fell again below 300.
The state of emergency Japan set up to curb the spread of the coronavirus will be lifted in six urban areas this weekend and remain in the Tokyo area for another week, a government minister told The Associated Press on Friday.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of pandemic measures, told a special government panel that the emergency will be lifted in Aichi, Gifu, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo in central Japan, and in southwestern Fukuoka.
Tokyo and surrounding Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures are to continue to observe the emergency until March 7, although an official decision has not yet been announced.
Naval Air Facility Atsugi, 26 miles southwest of Tokyo, had two individuals come up positive for the virus in a test required before exiting quarantine, according to a Facebook post Friday. Atsugi had been clear of known cases since Feb. 12.
Yokosuka Naval Base, homeport of the U.S. 7th fleet 35 miles south of Tokyo, reported that two new arrivals to Japan had tested positive since Tuesday. Another individual who was already under observation was hospitalized “due to complications from COVID-19,” according to a Facebook post Friday. COVID-19 is the respiratory disease associated with the coronavirus.
The naval hospital at Yokosuka is monitoring 11 patients, according to the base.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported 270 newly infected people Friday, according to public broadcaster NHK. The number of new cases has wavered but inched slowly downward since a pandemic high in early January. Some daily counts now are the lowest they’ve been since November.
U.S. Forces Korea reported no new cases by 6 p.m. Friday.
The South Korean government reported 382 new infections on Thursday as it recovers from a mid-February spike that exceeded 600 newly infected patients a day, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency update Friday.
On the vaccine front, the senior enlisted leader for U.S. Forces Japan said Thursday that the command may begin to lessen restriction-of-movement requirements at its installations by April as more vaccine becomes available. Restriction of movement, or ROM, is a two-week quarantine for those who haven’t tested positive for the virus, including new U.S. military arrivals to Japan, travelers returning from outside Japan or those who have had contact with someone infected with the virus.
Speaking on American Forces Network Radio, Command Chief Master Sgt. Rick Winegardner Jr. said USFJ may ease movement restrictions as an incentive for service members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We’re going to start tying carrots to getting your jab,” he said.
Service members must volunteer for the Moderna vaccine, which is being shipped to U.S. installations in Japan and South Korea, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it for emergency use only. The military cannot mandate its use. About a third of service members thus far had declined the vaccine, a Joint Chiefs of Staff official said last week.
The U.S. military can ease some restrictions on its own but in other cases must work with Japan, the host country, Winegardner said. Some installations are already expanding travel areas as case numbers fall in the U.S. military and across Japan.
Yokota Air Base, for example, recently reduced the off-limits zone in central Tokyo to just three wards and one Yokohama locale, Chinatown. On Friday, the base increased the size limit on group gatherings from six to 10 people and from two families to three. Also, ID card holders may bring two guests, up from one, onto base at a time, according to a Facebook post Friday.
However, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, near Hiroshima, on Thursday announced it would cancel its annual Friendship Day open house, usually held in May, for a second year, thanks to the pandemic.
Answering a listener who asked when service members’ families might expect to be inoculated, Winegardner said no set schedule exists for further shipments of the Moderna vaccine. It is administered in two doses at least 28 days apart.
“We don’t have a magic matrix that says we know within the next month that 2,000 more doses are going to be pushed this way,” he said. “We are tracking it on a weekly basis.”
Each service is responsible for working through the prioritized table, or schema, of vaccine recipients, Winegardner said. The healthy population, including family members and Defense Department employees, are phase two, the lowest priority. Frontline medical professionals, troops about to deploy and individuals with underlying health conditions all rank higher.
U.S. Army Japan inoculated some phase two recipients in late January, a month after the first shipments of vaccine arrived at bases in Japan.
“The Army is probably a little bit ahead of everybody because of the way they look at themselves as a forward-deployed unit,” Winegardner said. “As this plays out, the goal is for everybody by July, if you want your vaccine, you’re able to get it.”
The Associated Press and Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.