215 U.S. Marines Stationed in Japan Test Positive for COVID, Unknown if Omicron Variant

According to Japanese officials, 215 U.S. Marines have tested positive for COVID-19 at a base in Okinawa as of Wednesday. It is currently unknown if the infections were caused by the Omicron variant.

The U.S. military base on Okinawa island in southern Japan has reported an outbreak of infections. So far 215 Marines have tested positive for COVID-19 and several Japanese employees on the base tested positive for Omicron.

Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said the Marines who tested positive had recently traveled from the U.S. to be stationed at Camp Hansen.

Hayashi said he recommended for Lt. Gen. Ricky Rupp, the commander of U.S. forces in Japan, to increase their testing measures and analyze the samples to determine which variant of COVID-19 cases are from.

The U.S. military said it will work with Japan to check if the Marines cases are from the Omicron variant and give the results to Japanese officials, said Hayashi.

Hayashi also suggested not allowing U.S. troops stationed on the base to leave so they can limit the chance of COVID-19 spreading into the surrounding community.

So far, people traveling into the country have been responsible for most of the Omicron infections in Japan. More than 100 cases have been linked to people testing positive upon their arrival at the airport or who have been in close contact.

Japan reinstated strict border controls for foreign travelers after the announcement from South Africa of the new Omicron variant.

Japan COVID-19 Testing
The U.S. military base on Okinawa in southern Japan has reported an outbreak of infections. Above, a nurse collects a nasal swab sample from a car driver at a COVID-19 testing center at Fujimino Emergency Hospital on December 18, 2020 in Miyoshi-machi, Japan. Carl Court/Getty Images

Japan eased its border controls in November, but quickly reinstated a ban on most new foreign entrants after Omicron was first identified in South Africa.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday that he plans to keep the border controls, among the world's most stringent, in place until more details about the Omicron variant are known.

Kishida said Japan is also tightening quarantine rules for those who come in close contact with Omicron patients, requiring 14 days of isolation at designated facilities instead of the previous self-isolation at home.

He also announced plans to accelerate booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines, which started with medical workers in December.

Japan on Wednesday confirmed its first known local transmissions of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus in Osaka.

The family of three in Osaka had no record of traveling overseas and their infections could not be traced, Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said.

The three are the first known cases of community transmission of the highly infectious Omicron variant in Japan, Yoshimura said. "I believe they only happened to be detected and we must take steps on the assumption that there already are other cases of community transmission," he said.

Yoshimura said current restrictions on eateries in Osaka will remain in place, including a limit of four people per table for a maximum of two hours, to minimize risks during the year-end holiday season, when coronavirus infections surged last year.

Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto, responding to the confirmation of the Osaka cases, said the government will do its utmost to prevent a further spread of the variant.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tokyo, Japan, COVID-19
Recently, 215 U.S. Marines tested positive for COVID-19 at Camp Hansen military base in Okinawa, Japan. Above, people wearing face masks walk along a pedestrian crossing at Shibuya district on December 17 in Tokyo. Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo