Naomichi Suzuki, Hokkaido Prefectural Governor, attends a press conference after announcing a declaration of an emergency situation at the Prefectural Office in Sapporo on Friday. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan’s coronavirus-hit Hokkaido region on Friday asked residents to stay at home over the weekend as the northern area struggles to contain a fast-spreading outbreak.

Governor Naomichi Suzuki declared a state-of-emergency through March 19.

“I believe it is necessary to take unprecedented, drastic steps,” Suzuki told a televised meeting of local government executives.

Hokkaido region, known for ski resorts and vast forests, has seen at least 63 coronavirus cases, including two deaths, and accounts for more than a quarter of all cases in Japan, apart from those on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

The central government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already dispatched a team of experts and officials to the region to contain the virus.

“I ask for help of all Hokkaido residents to protect lives and health of you and your loved ones and to ensure swift ending of the situation,” the governor said.

“To prevent further spread of the virus, please refrain from going out during the weekend,” he said.

The region’s ski resorts attract many wealthy Asian tourists, including from China.

Suzuki has already asked for local schools to be closed, but he did not announce any further concrete measures to fight the outbreak.

The virus has so far infected at least 210 people across the country, including Hokkaido, and been linked to five deaths.

Abe, who on Thursday also requested nationwide closure of schools, has said efforts during the coming weeks will determine whether the outbreak can be contained, a major concern in the run-up to Tokyo Olympics in July.

Abe’s stunner

The abrupt call for schools nationwide to close has caught parents and administrators off-guard, prompting criticism even as some experts defended the move.

On Thursday night, Abe announced he would ask primary, junior high and high schools to shut their doors for around a month, though nurseries and after-school clubs are exempt.

The government cannot order schools to shut, a power that belongs to local councils, but authorities in many regions said they were neither consulted nor warned about the decision.

“This is shocking news,” tweeted Toshihito Kumagai, mayor of the city of Chiba, east of Tokyo.

“How will parents who are medical workers or doing other jobs that support society manage? Society could collapse.”

And Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura tweeted that he was “stunned” by the “sudden decision”, though he expressed some understanding for the move.

“All of Japan has to deal with this infectious disease,” he added.

“It must be Prime Minister Abe’s strong determination and he will take responsibility.”

The virus has so far infected nearly 200 people across the country and been linked to four deaths.

“This decision is a particularly drastic step for the central government to take,” said Tobias Harris of Teneo Consultancy.

It was “not mentioned in the basic policy adopted Tuesday, and appears to go beyond what the government’s own experts were recommending,” he added in a note.

But some experts have recommended closures, with one member of the government panel previously pointing to smaller-scale school closures that he said helped contain a new flu outbreak in 2009.

Among many parents, there was a sense of panic, and anger that the closure would be so long.

One Twitter user slammed “how incompetent this country’s government is.”

“They promoted the idea of double-income families and then this, without providing ways to be absent from work.”

But others were more understanding of the move by the government, which was previously under attack for a relatively hands-off approach to the virus.

“It’s ‘war’ against the new coronavirus,” one Twitter user wrote.

“As it’s an emergency and a major disaster, we have to act with the maximum sense of crisis.”

Diamond Princess crew

Two South Africans were contaminated by the new coronavirus while serving as crew members aboard a cruise ship that was quarantined for three weeks in Japan, officials said Friday.

The pair, the first South Africans confirmed to have the virus, are being cared for in Japan but they do not show symptoms of the illness linked to COVID-19, South Africa’s health ministry said.

The South African government was informed by Tokyo that there were 12 South African crew members working on the Princess Diamond cruise ship when it was hit by  Covid-19, and that two had tested positive, the ministry said.

“They are currently being treated in Japan and the latest reports indicate that they are currently asymptomatic.” 

Until now, no one in South Africa has been officially confirmed to have the virus.

The authorities in Pretoria announced Thursday that 132 of their citizens will be repatriated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic. 

Officially, only three people have been contaminated on the African continent – one in Egypt, one in Algeria and one in Nigeria. None has died.

The new coronavirus has contaminated more than 80,000 people and cost the lives of nearly 3,000 people worldwide, the vast majority in China, according to the latest tally by AFP based on official sources.

US whistleblower complaint

Federal health employees were sent to interact with repatriated Americans quarantined for exposure to the novel coronavirus without wearing protective gear or receiving training, a whistleblower complaint cited by US media said Thursday.

The filing, which was seen by the Washington Post and New York Times, was submitted by a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who said she was improperly re-assigned after raising her concerns and threatened with being fired if she did not comply.

According to the two newspapers, the incidents were in relation to two California air force bases, Travis and March. More than a dozen workers were sent to each site. 

Travis Air Force Base is in Solano County, where the first US patient for whom the source of new coronavirus infection could not be immediately identified is from.

That case appears to be the first of so-called “community spread,” signaling a new phase in the battle against the virus in the US.

The complaint said the HHS staff were sent into quarantined areas in the two bases, including a hangar where the evacuees were being received. 

At times, these teams worked alongside personnel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who wore “full gown, gloves and hazmat attire,” the complaint said.

The Washington Post said the whistleblower had decades of field experience and received two department awards from health secretary Alex Azar last year.

The deployments took place in late January and early February, the newspaper said.

Afterwards, the workers returned to their normal duties, some taking commercial flights back to their offices around the country.

US President Donald Trump has downplayed the potential spread of the novel coronavirus in the country, a message seemingly at odds with senior public health officials who have urged Americans to prepare to cancel mass gatherings and work from home. 

As of Wednesday, there are a total of 61 confirmed cases in the US, including 46 of which relate to people repatriated from abroad.