Government must clarify its own role in ongoing pandemic response

The number of new cases of novel coronavirus infections remains high. The crisis cannot be overcome by simply leaving the response to local governments. The central government should take the lead and steer countermeasures.

Many prefectures have issued declarations of strengthened measures against the BA.5 omicron subvariant under a new system of novel coronavirus countermeasures. The prefectures are once again calling on residents and others to take thorough steps, such as avoiding the so-called Three Cs of closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings, as well as promoting teleworking, in order to prevent the medical care system from becoming strained.

Under the new system, the government designates the prefectures that have issued the declarations as “areas where measures are to be strengthened” and will provide advice and information to ensure that local efforts proceed smoothly. This system is designed to avoid severe restrictions on actions such as declaring a state of emergency, but it is difficult to see the role of the government.

The daily number of newly infected people nationwide has exceeded 200,000 on many days recently, and there are no signs of it abating. Most of the cases are mild, but as the number of elderly people infected is increasing, the number of those with serious illnesses is also increasing. Half of the prefectures have an occupancy rate of hospital beds assigned for COVID-19 treatment of 50% or higher, the figure regarded as the benchmark for a strained medical care system.

What is important is establishing a system to provide medical care that can save lives. Fever outpatient facilities and emergency medical services must avoid a situation in which they are overwhelmed by the need to treat patients with mild symptoms and are unable to provide medical care for those with serious illnesses.

Efforts are underway to allow patients with mild illnesses to test themselves at home instead of visiting a fever outpatient facility. However, the rapid increase in demand for test kits has caused delays in deliveries, and many places are running out.

It is problematic that the stagnant distribution of the necessary supplies and medicines has not been resolved even though the country has experienced several waves of pandemic. The causes of the inadequate distribution of test kits need to be analyzed and resolved as soon as possible.

The government has finally simplified the entry items for HER-SYS, a system for consolidating information on infected people. For patients with a low risk of serious illness, only limited data including their name and address will have to be input.

This is intended to reduce the burden on fever outpatient facilities and public health centers, but some observers say it will have only limited effect due to the explosive increase in the number of infected patients. COVID-19 measures must be reviewed from time to time to see if they are appropriate for the actual situation and the current state of infections.

A voluntary group of experts including Shigeru Omi, chairman of the government subcommittee on COVID-19 measures, has proposed that the government review its measures. The group has urged a gradual relaxing of the current measures, in which health centers are responsible for identifying all infected persons. The government and experts should deepen cooperation and consider effective countermeasures.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is said to have moved up his Cabinet reshuffle in order to deal with the COVID-19 countermeasures and other issues. The government must tackle the countermeasures with a new lineup of ministers who are able to respond to key issues.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 9. 2022)