A Japanese government panel on Friday recommended that children wear face masks at day-cares to prevent the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant but stopped short of suggesting a specific age due to concerns over health risks.

As Omicron continues to spread rapidly in the country, particularly among children, the panel laid out proposals to prevent children and day-care staff from getting infected. Protecting elderly people, who are also being hit by COVID-19, was also urgently sought by the panel.

An initial plan that sought children aged 2 or older to wear face masks fell through due to objections within the panel. Shigeru Omi, the government's top COVID-19 adviser, said after their meeting that while children at day-cares are advised to wear face masks, the panel has decided not to specify their age.

The health ministry's anti-virus guidelines for day-cares so far do not require that children wear face masks at the facilities.

The panel wrote in their recommendations that children are "recommended to wear masks when possible," but that would depend on their individual development.

The panel also stated there is "no need to force them to wear face masks when they feel ill or have difficulties wearing them continuously."

The panel will also maintain the existing policy of not recommending children under 2 to wear them due to suffocation or heat stroke risks.

Takaji Wakita, head of a group of experts advising Japan's health ministry on its pandemic response, speaks during a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting in Tokyo on Feb. 4, 2022. (Kyodo)

The latest measures came as Japan grapples with its sixth wave of infections driven by Omicron, leading to a surge in seriously ill COVID patients as well as school closures.

Omi told reporters that with COVID continuing to mutate, it remains uncertain when infections would "peak out."

The number of COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms on Friday surpassed 1,000 for the first time in about four months, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said. Friday's tally of 1,042 cases rose by 131 from the previous day and surged more than 20 times from the 51 reported on New Year's Day.

Nationwide new COVID cases topped 70,000 on Friday, a day after the daily tally of COVID-19 cases exceeded 100,000 for the first time, pushing the cumulative total to 3 million. Of Japan's 47 prefectures, 34 remain under a COVID-19 quasi-state of emergency.

Also, on Friday, the number of people recuperating at home as of Wednesday reached a record 434,890, up by more than 170,000 in just a week, the ministry said, as infected children spread the virus to other family members.

The spread of Omicron has also pushed 1,114 schools, including elementary and high school, as well as kindergartens, to close as of Jan. 26. The figure marks 3.1 percent of the estimated 35,000 schools in Japan.

Takaji Wakita, who leads a group of experts advising the health ministry on its pandemic response, said that unless a downtrend is seen among children and elderly people, "the overall figures will not decline" and called for more steps to be taken to reduce infections in these groups.

He also called for flexible management of hospital beds as a surge in COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms has made it difficult for other people to be admitted to hospitals.

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