Disease outbreaks to be officially added to disaster medical teams’ mission

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
This photo of the cruise ship Diamond Princess, docked at Yokohama Port, was taken in February 2020.

To strengthen countermeasures against the coronavirus pandemic, the government has decided to add dealing with infectious diseases to the mission of the Disaster Medical Assistance Team program, which dispatches medical professionals in the event of a major accident or disaster.

The decision is based on the fact that several groups of professionals from the program have been dispatched to various sites where mass infections have occurred and they have been considered to have produced positive results.

In the next fiscal year, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry plans to establish a special team to provide medical support for dealing with infectious diseases within the DMAT program and assign doctors and other professionals to the special team. The special team will also flexibly respond to infectious diseases other than COVID-19.

Under the DMAT program, medical professionals are designated to be dispatched by either the central or local government in the event of a major disaster and begin treating patients roughly within 48 hours. About 16,000 medical professionals who usually work in hospitals and other facilities are registered with the program, and can be mobilized in times of disaster.

In areas affected by disasters, teams of four people — one doctor, two nurses and one administrative staff member — will provide first aid and other support.

According to the ministry’s guidelines, DMAT activities were designed for major earthquakes as well as aircraft and train accidents, and did not include responses to infectious diseases.

In the fight against the pandemic, however, DMAT personnel have been asked to work with the government from the early stages of the spread of the infections. This is because they have expertise in how to respond quickly to disasters and other emergent situations.

In February last year, about 470 DMAT personnel were dispatched to the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which docked at Yokohama Port, when a cluster outbreak occurred among passengers and crew on the ship.

They played a key role in transporting patients to hospitals in multiple prefectures, utilizing their experience in triage, which is the process of determining the priority of providing medical treatment based on the symptoms of patients at the scene of a disaster.

DMAT personnel continued to be sent to more than 250 facilities across the country, including hospitals where clusters of infection had occurred, to provide medical support and coordinate the transfer of patients.

Based on these achievements, the ministry decided to officially include response to infectious diseases in the DMAT mission.

The ministry has also decided to strengthen the structure of the DMAT program, as its personnel will be requested to respond when a serious infectious disease breaks out in the country or when an unknown virus spreads.

The ministry will increase the number of personnel capable of dealing with infectious diseases. About 60 are currently registered. It will also establish the special team within the DMAT program.

The special team is expected to coordinate hospitalization across prefectural boundaries and open waiting facilities in areas where there is a shortage of hospital beds.

The DMAT program has administrative offices in Tokyo and Osaka that will provide training to doctors and nurses who wish to join the special team. The training will cover how to respond to infected patients and “zoning,” which separates potentially dangerous areas from safe areas in hospitals.

In its budget request for the new fiscal year, the health ministry has increased the amount of DMAT-related expenses by ¥270 million to ¥880 million.