TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday (Feb 27) that the government will ask all elementary, junior high and high schools to close from Mar 2 until spring break, typically around the end of March.
The news came after a woman working as a tour bus guide tested positive for the coronavirus for a second time, Osaka's prefectural government said, the first known person in Japan and one of very few worldwide to do so amid growing concerns about the spread of the infection.
"The government considers the health and safety of children above anything else," Abe said at a meeting of the government's task force to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The spring break for public schools usually starts late March in Japan.
The number of cases in Japan has now risen to more than 200, up from the official tally of 186 late on Wednesday.
On the main northern island of Hokkaido, 13 new cases, including two under the age of 10, were confirmed, the public broadcaster NHK reported.
"Efforts to prevent the spread of infections among children are being made in various areas," Abe added.
Many public elementary schools and junior high schools in northern Hokkaido were closed on Thursday as the governor has requested for public schools to be closed for about a week.
The city of Osaka also said it will close its kindergartens, elementary and junior high schools from Saturday for two weeks.
The government has urged that big gatherings and sports events be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to contain the virus while pledging that the 2020 Summer Olympics will go ahead in the capital Tokyo.
The more than 200 cases are separate from 704 reported from an outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise liner that was quarantined off Tokyo earlier this month.
Opposition lawmakers have questioned the relatively low number of tests administered in Japan - about 1,000 nationwide, compared with 57,000 in South Korea.
Japan has also faced criticism for its handling of the cruise ship. Multiple new cases emerged while the ship was in quarantine and among passengers allowed off the ship after initially testing negative.
A man in his 80s died in Hokkaido after contracting the coronavirus, the prefectural government said, bringing the total number of people who have died in Japan to eight, including four from the ship.
Though a first known case for Japan, second positive tests have been reported in China where the disease originated late last year.
The outbreak has spread rapidly and widely, infecting about 80,000 people globally and killing nearly 2,800, the vast majority in mainland China.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said in parliament the central government would need to review patient lists and keep tabs on the condition of those previously discharged, as health experts analysed the implications of testing positive for the virus after an initial recovery.
"Once you have the infection, it could remain dormant and with minimal symptoms, and then you can get an exacerbation if it finds its way into the lungs," said Philip Tierno Jr, Professor of Microbiology and Pathology at NYU School of Medicine.
Tierno said much remains unknown about the virus. "I'm not certain that this is not bi-phasic, like anthrax," he said, meaning the disease appears to go away before recurring.
Asked to comment on prospects for the Olympic Games going ahead in Tokyo this summer, Tierno said, "The Olympics should be postponed if this continues ... There are many people who don't understand how easy it is to spread this infection from one person to another."
SCALING DOWN EVENTS
Japan has changed its strategy in combating the contagion, seeking to slow its spread and minimise the number of deaths.
The health ministry said on Thursday that with the Diamond Princess still located south of Tokyo, about 240 foreign and Japanese crew members who have tested negative for the virus would disembark from the ship over the next few days.
Those with no symptoms would remain at a facility near Tokyo for further monitoring, the ministry said in a statement. An official could not immediately confirm the total number of crew on board the ship.
As part of the attempts to contain the outbreak, Tokyo Olympics officials are considering scaling down the torch relay, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said on Wednesday.
The government is also considering scaling back this year's March 11 memorial ceremony for victims of 2011's massive earthquake and tsunami, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Thursday.
In the private sector, Japan's biggest trading firm, Mitsubishi Corp, said it was telling all of its 3,800 staff in the country to work from home for two weeks starting
Friday, while a major Japanese bank reported an employee had tested positive for coronavirus.
MUFG Bank, part of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc , the country's largest lender by assets, said a member of staff at a branch in central Aichi prefecture, had been confirmed to have the virus on Wednesday.