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Nearly 2,000 new cases of the virus in Tokyo one day before the opening of the Olympics

TOKYO (AP) – Tokyo hit a new six-month high in new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a day before the start of the Olympics, as concerns grow about worsening infections during the Games.

Thursday’s 1,979 new cases are the highest since 2,044 were recorded on January 15.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, determined to host the Olympics, placed Tokyo on a state of emergency on July 12, but daily cases have risen sharply since then.

The emergency measures, which largely involve a ban on the sale of alcohol and shorter hours for restaurants and bars, are to last until August 22, after the Olympics end on August 8.

Japan has reported around 853,000 cases and 15,100 deaths since the start of the pandemic, most this year. Yet the number of cases and deaths as a proportion of the population is much lower than in many other countries.

The Olympics, delayed for a year by the pandemic, begin on Friday. Spectators are prohibited from all venues in the Tokyo area, with a limited audience allowed at a few outlying venues.

Suga’s government has come under fire for what some say is prioritizing the Olympics over the health of the nation. His audience support ratings have fallen to around 30% in recent media surveys, and there has been little pre-Games celebration. Opening ceremony director Kentaro Kobayashi was fired on Thursday for a Holocaust joke.

In Olympics-related diplomacy, Suga is due to meet with U.S. First Lady Jill Biden on Thursday and have dinner at the state guesthouse. Earlier today, he received a visit from the Director General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Also on Thursday, Emperor Naruhito received a courtesy visit from the President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach at the Imperial Palace. Naruhito said he hopes all athletes compete in good health and perform at their best. Bach said the Olympic community was doing their best to be safe for the Japanese.

Experts say viral infections in unvaccinated people under the age of 50 are on the rise.

Vaccinations in Japan started late and slowly, but the pace picked up in May as the government pushed to ramp up the campaign ahead of the Olympics, although the pace has since slowed due to a shortage of imported vaccines.

About 23% of Japanese are fully immunized, well below the level deemed necessary to have a significant effect on reducing risk in the general population.

Experts warned on Wednesday that infections in Tokyo are expected to continue to worsen in the coming weeks.

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