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COVID-19 testing failing to catch up to speed of coronavirus

  • August 23, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 6:02 p.m.
  • English Press

The positivity rate for COVID-19 tests has risen in many parts of the country, raising concerns that testing is falling behind the pace at which the coronavirus is spreading.


A central government panel has defined the most serious infection situation, stage four, as when the positivity rate reaches 10 percent or more, and stage three at 5 percent or more.


As of Aug. 19, the Cabinet Secretariat’s official figure for Tokyo’s positivity rate over the latest week was high: 23.3 percent. It was 34.8 percent in Kanagawa Prefecture, while the national average was 16.4 percent.


During an Aug. 20 meeting, Tokyo metropolitan government officials pointed to a failure of conducting tests quickly enough on those who need to be tested.

But Tokyo has yet to reach the limit of its capacity for administering tests.


What the government refers to as “administrative testing” is available at public expense for those with COVID-19 symptoms or who have been exposed to the virus.

As of Aug. 20, 14,000 people on average received an administrative test in Tokyo per day in the last seven days.


But according to the metropolitan government, more than 40,000 administrative tests a day can be conducted at about 3,800 health care organizations in the capital.

A metropolitan government official denied that Tokyo has scaled back its testing efforts.


The low number reflects “the number of patients who go to a health care organization that conducts administrative testing,” the official said.


One of the major reasons why the number of administrative tests has grown at such a sluggish pace is because a massive epidemiological study being carried out at public health centers is running behind.


The research aims to identify infected people as soon as possible to prevent the virus from spreading quickly.


In the study, public health center representatives interview infected people about their recent history, identify people who have been in close contact with them and then test those close contacts.


Many of those in close contact with infected individuals are not infected themselves.


When the study is being conducted widely, it contributes to an increase in testing and a lower positivity rate.


But when the number of infected people increases to a certain point, the study has less of an impact on the numbers.


Another reason is that public health centers are preoccupied with many important tasks other than testing, such as finding hospitals to transport patients and monitoring patients’ health conditions.


On top of all that, not everyone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms wants to get tested.


“Last year, there were many people who wanted to take a test even though they had minor symptoms. But not now,” said Fujiki Ishihara, director of the Kitashinagawa Fuji Clinic in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward.


At the same time, private companies that conduct “self-pay testing” have stepped up their presence.


This kind of testing targets people who do not have symptoms and are less likely to have contracted the virus.


A subsidiary of the Tokyo-based Kinoshita Group has conducted self-financed tests at 15 locations, including three airports.


It can run about 15,000 tests per day.


Appointments for tests have been fully booked every day at least as far back as the four-day holiday weekend in July.


The positivity rate until early July was about 1.3 percent. But it rose to around 3 percent at the end of the month.


The health ministry in July started releasing the number of self-pay tests provided by certain private-testing companies.


According to data released on Aug. 22, there were about 1.71 million private tests conducted in the span of about a month up until Aug. 14.


During the same period, about 2.55 million administrative tests were conducted.


But the positivity rate released by the health ministry and other administrative agencies does not include self-pay tests.


In areas where many private tests are conducted, the positivity rates may have become higher than they are in actuality.


(This article was written by Aya Amano, Kazuya Goto and Akiyoshi Abe.)

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