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Data collection methods led to significant miscalculation of coronavirus cases in Tokyo

  • May 21, 2020
  • , The Japan News , 6:05 p.m.
  • English Press

A significant error occurred this month in calculating the number of people in Tokyo infected with the new coronavirus.

 

As new cases of infection soared, the exchange of a vast amount of data via fax led to confusion among relevant authorities. The capital also saw the adverse effects of the “dual administration” of local ward and city governments and the Tokyo metropolitan government, both of which are responsible for their respective public health centers.

 

“If we can’t provide residents with accurate information, it’s doubtful any measures to prevent infections will be effective,” an expert said.

 

■‘Like a battlefield’

 

“The fact that we consequently failed to deliver accurate information to the people in Tokyo is a matter for improvement,” said an official in charge at the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health of the Tokyo metropolitan government.

 

He apologized after revealing on May 11 that the metropolitan government had failed to report 111 cases of infections, and that 35 cases had been counted more than once.

 

Although the Tokyo government balanced the data and added 76 cases to the total, four people among this number had already died. Skepticism about the accuracy of the total had been voiced earlier.

 

A senior official of the Tokyo government said, “We were consistently worried that we had been unable to accurately track the number.”

 

A key factor behind the miscalculation was the analogue method of collecting data. According to the metropolitan government and others, a medical institution that confirms the infection of a patient sends that information to the relevant public health center via fax and the like. To prevent information leakage through mistransmission, some data was sent with the names of patients written in katakana or identifying them only by their initials, or with their addresses and other information blotted out in black.

 

Public health centers gathered the missing information via telephone, rewrote the relevant documents and then faxed them to the Tokyo government.

 

However, there is only one fax machine at the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health for receiving these documents, and information concerning as many as about 200 people a day reached the bureau.

 

There were also cases in which a public health center responsible for the area where a medical institution is located and a public health center in charge of the area where an infected patient lives would send the same information separately. As a result, people in charge at the bureau, about 10 in all, were extremely busy confirming data.

 

The bureau of the Tokyo government in charge of collecting information was also overwhelmed with a massive workload. Mistakes in the calculations began to occur repeatedly from late March, which corresponded with the period when the number of infections rose sharply.

 

An official concerned said, “It was like a battlefield for both public health centers and the metropolitan government at that point.”

 

■Lack of cooperation

 

Yet another factor was the lack of cooperation between the Tokyo government and local public health centers.

 

Tokyo contains 31 public health centers. Of these, six are directly managed by the Tokyo government, while the 23 special wards and the two cities of Hachioji and Machida in western Tokyo have their own health centers.

 

Regarding the cases that were not reported, the Tokyo metropolitan government said it did not receive the faxes. However, an official at a public health center in central Tokyo said angrily: “Even though there was a record of transmission, we were asked by Tokyo to resend the documents. That is a problem stemming from the administrative ability of the Tokyo government.”

 

The metropolitan government began its own investigation from the latter half of April, dispatching personnel to public health centers. The move was said to have been made at the instruction of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who apparently lost patience with the complete lack of updates in such data as the number of hospital beds secured and the number of patients hospitalized.

 

A senior official of the Tokyo government said critically, “Interorganizational failure to act properly as a result of only focusing on each other and following a principle of not rocking the boat, as well as the absence of a control tower brought about the mistakes.”

 

■Sharing data online

 

On May 12, the day after the Tokyo government publicly revealed its mistakes, it started operating a data center with 30 personnel to centralize the management of information.

 

The system has been developed for it to also share data online with public health centers, and the confusion has subsided.

 

Four months have passed since the first case of infection with the new coronavirus was confirmed in Tokyo in January. A senior official of the Tokyo government reflected, “We were preoccupied with the tasks right in front of us then, so we didn’t get around to thinking about how to improve the method for collecting data.”

 

Prof. Shoji Tsuchida of Kansai University, who is knowledgeable about crisis management within an organization, said: “A lack of information when society is destabilized amid infections with the new coronavirus is a breeding ground for groundless rumors and disinformation. The Tokyo metropolitan government needs to straighten up.”

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