Reduce burdens to prevent constricted situation at medical institutions

Amid the seventh wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of medical workers are absent from work due to being infected or being a close contact of infected people. In order to maintain the medical care system, it is necessary to reduce the burdens at hospitals and clinics.

The number of newly infected people per day nationwide exceeded 200,000 on Saturday, doubling that seen at the peak of the sixth wave.

At this point, the number of seriously ill patients is low, with the overwhelming majority of mainly younger-generation patients having mild symptoms. But the problem is the staffing shortage due to absences among doctors and nurses. Operations have become so strained that some hospitals have been forced to reduce the number of inpatient beds and limit emergency visits.

Long lines have formed at some fever outpatient sections at hospitals as patients descend on them for tests and consultations. The new government COVID-19 policies, therefore, allow hospitals to distribute test kits free to patients with mild symptoms to have them test themselves at home.

The BA.5 omicron subvariant is highly infectious, but is said to be less likely to cause severe illness. The new measure is a realistic response based on this characteristic.

However, some medical institutions are already short of test kits. The government is urged to make every effort to distribute the kits smoothly so that they will be available to patients who need them.

The government has shortened the required stay-at-home period for people who had close contact with infected people from seven days in principle to five days. The government’s decision was based on the judgment that an increase in the number of people absent from work at companies and other organizations could hinder social and economic activities. If their test results are negative, the requirement to stay home will be lifted as early as the third day.

Medical personnel have already been allowed to work as long as they have no symptoms and are confirmed negative in tests before starting their duties, even if they have been in close contact with infected people. However, many hospitals have made them stay at home due to fears about the spread of infection within the hospital.

To take advantage of the shortening of the stay-at-home period for close contacts, a system to allow the early return to work of medical personnel must be figured out as soon as possible.

Amid the staffing shortage, it must be ensured that the treatment of severely ill patients who require intensive medical care will not be hindered by staff having to respond to a rapidly increasing number of mildly ill patients.

Under the Infectious Diseases Law that categorizes infectious diseases in five classes, some experts have suggested that COVID-19 should be classified as Category V, the same as seasonal influenza, instead of the equivalent of Category II, which is subject to strict restrictions. If COVID-19 is categorized as Category V, patients can be treated at a wider range of medical institutions and the burdens on dealing with the disease will not be on only specific institutions.

However, while public funds are used to cover the cost of treatment for an infection classified as equivalent to Category II, patients have to pay a portion of the cost in the treatment of a Category V infectious disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic has now entered its third year and measures are becoming more widespread. How should we deal with the novel coronavirus from now on? It is time to start a discussion involving the general public.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 26, 2022)