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Japan's Okinawa reports record COVID cases, US forces blamed

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, center, and Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono, right, hold Okinawa's request document demanding stricter COVID-19 measures at US military bases in the prefecture during their meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (Photo by AP)

Japan's southern Okinawa prefecture has reported record daily coronavirus infections fueled by the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant largely blamed on US forces stationed there.

Authorities in Okinawa – which hosts 70 percent of US military installations across Japan – stated that the prefecture registered 1,829 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday.

Okinawa’s Governor Denny Tamaki had previously emphasized that he was "furious" about what he described as inadequate infection controls at American military facilities that allowed the variant to spread to the local population.

Japan has since intensified its coronavirus restrictions in three regions that host US military bases, which were forced to also impose stricter measures to curb infection.

While Japan has halted the entry of nearly all foreign travelers into the country since the past November, the American military authorities across Japan move service members in and out of the country under a separate testing and quarantine regime.

Moreover, Japan’s western prefecture of Osaka is also likely to register record daily infections on Saturday surpassing the 3,000 mark, according to local NHK public broadcaster.

The development came a week after the Japanese Foreign Ministry declared that the US military had agreed to tighten COVID-19 restrictions at its numerous bases across Japan.

For two weeks starting Monday, the movement of US forces personnel outside base facilities will be restricted to essential activities, said a joint statement issued last Sunday by the Japanese government and US forces in Japan. 

The US military in Japan has also agreed to impose mandatory mask-wearing requirements on all personnel, the statement added. 

The US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) allows US military personnel to bypass Japanese quarantine offices if they land directly at a US military base, creating a loophole in entry screening. 

The southern island of Okinawa Prefecture, bearing the brunt, reported 1,533 new cases last Sunday, the highest in the country and second only to the prefecture's highest daily record of 1,795 the previous day. 

On the same day, the US military base in Okinawa reported 429 new cases, hitting a new high. 

Infection surges at US military bases in Japan since last December have been reportedly fueling the quick rebound in cases across Japan. 

The prefectures of Okinawa, Yamaguchi, and Hiroshima, all hosts of US military bases, were placed under a quasi-state of emergency on Sunday. 

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