US military relaxes some coronavirus restrictions for vaccinated personnel in Japan
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TOKYO — U.S. military bases in Japan are starting to adjust their coronavirus restrictions to give their vaccinated population leeway to travel and take part in activities that were off-limits during the pandemic.
None of the U.S. commands in Japan reported new cases of COVID-19, the coronavirus respiratory disease, by 6 p.m. Thursday. In South Korea, the U.S. military announced Thursday that another 10 service members tested positive after arriving from the United States since late April.
In northeastern Japan, Misawa Air Base commander Col. Jesse Friedel designated 19 prefectures where vaccinated individuals may travel but unvaccinated individuals may not, according to a base Facebook post Wednesday. Another 11 are off-limits to everyone at Misawa and the remainder are open for travel to anyone.
Talking Thursday on American Forces Network Radio, Friedel said the decision springs from an evidence-based risk assessment. The risk of acquiring and spreading the coronavirus is lower for vaccinated people, he said.
“This is not something you should consider as a punishment at all, or an incentive to try and get you to take a vaccine,” he said. “I am very mindful that you have a personal choice to get the vaccine.”
Friedel also said an “effort behind the scenes” could bring the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to the base in the next month. The two-shot vaccine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use for children ages 12 to 17, though Friedel said it may be limited at Misawa in the near term to recipients ages 16 to 18.
On Thursday, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni amended its travel restrictions to allow inoculated individuals to travel through 13 prefectures labeled the “Red Zone” without having to quarantine after returning to the air station. Inoculated people may also “participate in all off-base activities except bars, nightclubs, and adult-only establishments,” according to a base Facebook post.
However, inoculated service members and Defense Department civilian employees at the air station south of Hiroshima must have approval from a lieutenant colonel in command or a designated authority to travel to the Red Zone.
Anyone not vaccinated is barred from the Red Zone, according to the base, and is prohibited from attending mass gatherings, large groups, activities that prevent social distancing and the basic list of off-limits businesses like karaoke clubs, Pachinko parlors, onsens, bars, nightclubs, and adult-only establishments.
At Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, vaccinated personnel are permitted inside movie theaters again and six other categories of indoor activities that are denied the non-vaccinated.
Vaccinated individuals may dine indoors; visit tourist attractions, festivals and concerts; swim at indoor pools or go bowling; and other activities, according to updated health protection measures the base posted May 7 on Facebook.
The now-familiar measures apply to all: social distancing, masks and frequent handwashing.
The U.S. Army on Okinawa published a similar list May 7 on Facebook. It puts 12 categories off-limits to unvaccinated people, mostly indoor activities that include organized sports, group physical training, martial arts and festivals with large crowds.
In South Korea, U.S. Forces Korea said five service members tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving at Osan Air Base from the United States on April 26, May 5, Monday and Wednesday via the Patriot Express.
Another five service members tested positive after arriving at Incheon International Airport via commercial flights on May 5, 7 and 8, according to USFK.
Eight tested positive on their first mandatory test prior to entering quarantine, and two were positive on the test required to exit quarantine, according to USFK. All 10 were quarantined at either Osan or Camp Humphreys.