Preventing infection among elderly holds the key to limiting fatalities

The “eighth wave” of the pandemic has seen a rapid increase in the number of deaths from the novel coronavirus. The spread of seasonal influenza has also begun. It is necessary to heighten our vigilance.

The number of new cases of COVID-19 infections has exceeded 200,000 per day, with deaths surpassing 500 on some days. While the proportion of severe cases is not particularly high, the significant increase in infections can be seen to have led to the rise in the death toll.

Since the start of the pandemic, cumulative COVID-19 deaths have reached 60,000. The majority have been elderly people. Many deaths result from the worsening of chronic illnesses due to coronavirus infection, so those with underlying medical conditions need to be especially careful.

Influenza has begun spreading nationwide. The number of patients is already close to 10,000, and the ratio of patients per medical institution has risen to 2.05, well exceeding the normal standard of 1.00 for flu season.

Partly due to restrictions on social activities and infection countermeasures in response to the coronavirus, influenza did not gain traction over the past three years. As a result, there are people who have not built up immunity, leading to fears of a major influenza epidemic.

In particularly bad years, deaths from influenza have reached into the thousands. Many of them were the elderly. If a full-scale “twindemic” of coronavirus and influenza were to occur, the death toll could surely rise even further. It may be rare, but a person could be infected with both at the same time, further raising the risk of serious symptoms.

The key to keeping deaths from either the coronavirus or influenza from increasing is to find the best ways to prevent the elderly from being infected. There must be systems put in place on the national and local levels that enable patients to receive testing and examinations without waiting too long. Vaccinations are also vitally important.

In particular, measures are essential at facilities for the elderly where infections can easily spread. A system must be put in place for daily health checks, even for staff members, and if something is amiss, for immediate testing and consultation with medical institutions. It is essential that test kits and medicines be in good supply.

On the front line, there is a shortage of antipyretic analgesics and other medicines at medical facilities. Over-the-counter drugs are also being bought up in large quantities due to the rapid increase in the number of infected people in China. That has led the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to ask industry groups to come up with countermeasures. The situation must be closely monitored to ensure that it does not become more serious.

The elderly are not the only ones who should be on guard against a twindemic. With the start of exam season, an illness in a test-taker or someone in their family could affect their ability to sit for exams. It is hoped they reconfirm that sufficient precautions to prevent infection are taken at home and at school, such as mask-wearing and adequate ventilation.

Jan. 15 will mark three full years since the first case of coronavirus infection was confirmed in Japan. Currently, restrictions on social activities have been greatly eased, and it is time to consider ways of living with COVID-19. It is crucial to remain aware that the importance of basic prevention of infectious diseases, including influenza, will not change.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 13, 2023)