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Editorial: More Omicron cases a call to battle stations for next wave

  • December 14, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 6:25 p.m.
  • English Press

Patients with the new Omicron coronavirus variant have emerged in various parts of Japan. One case involved an international traveler who tested negative on arrival but was later found to be infected. Every individual case needs to be thoroughly scrutinized to prevent the strain from spreading widely.

 

Over the weekend, a man was confirmed to have the Omicron variant while self-isolating at home in Gifu Prefecture following an overseas trip. It took four days for the health ministry to alert Gifu prefectural authorities to the fact the man had come into close contact with an infected individual. This was due to the time needed for an extra layer of testing above and beyond standard checks to confirm infection with a specific variant. The friend who drove the man home from the airport was added to the list of close contacts.

 

The government adopted strict border control measures to prevent the spread of Omicron cases. When a case involves an international flight, all the passengers are treated as close contacts. But the case of the Gifu man shows there are limits to the effectiveness of such strict measures.

 

We hope the government can develop ways to confirm Omicron cases faster and provide information more swiftly about close contacts to local administrations. This should enhance the nation’s ability to detect Omicron cases and trace contacts.

 

International arrival numbers are expected to grow toward yearend. The number of rooms reserved for quarantine has been increased to around 13,000 from 7,000. The government also decided to require visitors from certain countries and areas to go into self-isolation at home as a step to prevent a shortage of quarantine rooms.

 

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the government has struggled to expand facilities, manpower and testing abilities to deal with related health care challenges.

The shortage of quarantine hotels around airports for international passengers and their close contacts became glaringly clear around the time of the Tokyo Olympics. Yet, this problem has remained unaddressed.

 

For the time being, the central government plans to seek the help of local administrations that have reserved hotel rooms for patients who do not need hospitalization but must remain isolated. It has a duty to step up efforts to tackle this challenge without omission before a more serious situation develops.

 

Restrictions on entry and quarantine requirements are causing serious inconvenience to many people and have aroused anxiety among the general public. The government must provide timely and useful information and forecasts on the expected duration of the current measures and criteria for easing them.

 

Last week, the health ministry announced plans to prepare the public health and medical systems for a possible “sixth wave” of infections. The number of COVID-19 patients who can be admitted into hospitals has increased by 30 percent from summer, when the previous wave peaked. This follows a decision to release data on the number of available beds designated for COVID-19 patients at individual hospitals. Staffing numbers at public health centers can now be tripled if a crisis hits.

 

It is vital to ensure that both the mindsets and systems involved are configured so that hospital beds and staff numbers can be redistributed swiftly and flexibly in a crunch in line with the ministry’s strategy.

 

The judgment of prefectural administrations will be accorded greater weight than during the past five waves when it comes to assessing the infection situation and making policy decisions on such weighty matters as issuing a state of emergency, .

 

Effective policy efforts are crucial to combatting Omicron and determining key questions, such as whether the variant leads to faster transmission of the virus and causes more severe illness among infected people. How effective are current vaccines and treatments against the new strain? The central and local governments must share all the latest relevant information to develop effective responses to the challenges posed by the variant.

 

–The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 14

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