Tokyo sets "record" for COVID cases as Olympic games begin

(Kyodo News via AP)

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been fighting an uphill battle in favor of hosting the delayed Olympic Games in Tokyo all year. Public approval for the games remains in the basement, along with Suga’s own approval ratings, as the fear of the event creating another surge in COVID cases remained widespread in the country. Keeping all of that in mind, I’m sure this was just about the last headline he wanted to see after the games had barely gotten underway. Not only is there a “surge” in cases underway, but the total recorded today is the highest that Tokyo has seen, even higher than the worst days they experienced during the winter. And the vaccination rates in the capital have slowed to a trickle as the country is still struggling to obtain enough doses to go around. But even the numbers they’re seeing now really aren’t all that high. (Associated Press)

Tokyo reported its highest number of new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, days after the Olympics began.

The Japanese capital reported 2,848 new COVID-19 cases, exceeding the earlier record of 2,520 cases on Jan. 7.

It brings Tokyo’s total to more than 200,000 since the pandemic began last year.

Tokyo is under its fourth state of emergency, which is to continue through the Olympics until just before the Paralympics start in late August.

2,520 cases is nothing to sneeze at, depending on what your hospital capacity is and how many of these new cases wind up going into the “severe” category. But at the same time, we’re talking about a city with a population of just shy of 14 million. New York City was averaging more than 6,500 per day at one point in January of this year and that’s a city with six million fewer people. While Tokyo will clearly have to be on their guard, this isn’t exactly a record-setting event, or at least it isn’t yet.

The bigger question Suga needs to answer is what he plans to do about the vaccination rates. Japan is currently at roughly 25% vaccinated, which is not even close to anything resembling herd immunity. They didn’t even begin vaccinating people in any serious numbers until April. There was a big surge in May, but they quickly started running out of vials and they haven’t been able to get enough new doses in the pipeline.

It’s obviously not Suga’s fault that the vaccine deliveries have been slow. Also, it’s tough to point the finger of blame at the Olympic Games since they’re not letting almost anyone into the events at this point. Movement in Tokyo was already restricted before the games began and they’re seeing almost no tourist traffic or revenue out of this. The Prime Minister might be able to make the argument that this surge is probably coincidental in timing.

But will anyone care? Politics doesn’t operate on medical science. Perceptions are what matter for politicians and the perceptions surrounding Yoshihide Suga may already be baked into the cake. He knew that nearly 80% of his people wanted the game delayed again but he made the call to push forward anyway. And now they have a surge in new COVID cases just as the games are playing out on television. People are going to react to that.

Suga’s support remains in the tank as of this morning, but that doesn’t seem to be impacting his determination to stay the course. When asked about possibly suspending the games in response to the surge, Suga told reporters that there was “no worry about that.” He claims that fewer people are “moving around” and the government has issued another work-from-home order for those capable of doing so. And what good would suspending the games do now that they’re already underway? All of the athletes and others associated with the games are already in the country. Do you want them to sit in their hotel rooms for weeks? They’re unlikely to fly home only to be told that they should come back in a few weeks. At this point he may as well just get these games over with and live with the political consequences.