Japan prefectures increasingly share data to support COVID patients at home

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A public health nurse calls a COVID-19 patient staying at home from a consultation center in Mitaka, Tokyo, on Nov. 15.

Prefectural governments are increasingly ready to share with municipalities information about COVID-19 patients who are staying at home, in preparation for a possible sixth wave of the pandemic.

Authorities hope to avoid the mistakes of the past, as such information was not sufficiently shared during previous surges in the coronavirus. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey conducted by Sept. 1 — when the number of homebound COVID-19 patients exceeded 100,000 nationwide — only 15 prefectures said they gave patients’ personal information to municipalities under their jurisdiction.

In the most recent survey at the end of November, however, 36 prefectures said they would do so.

Prefectural public health centers consolidate information about COVID-19 patients, from when they were infected to their medical condition, including whether they were ever hospitalized.

Municipalities — such as designated cities and wards — that have a health center in their jurisdiction have information on COVID-19 patients staying at home, and can therefore check on their condition and send them daily necessities.

However, when a prefectural public health center handles information on residents in several municipalities, some of those municipalities do not have any information on homebound patients, and therefore, are not able to support them.

In the latest survey of 47 prefectures, 36 said they share or planned to share information on patients staying at home.

The Tokyo and Aichi prefectural governments, which said in the previous survey that they did not share information, began doing so in mid-September. Tochigi Prefecture followed suit in October.

Eight prefectures, including Shizuoka and Kagawa, said they were considering to do so.

In contrast, Nagano, Nara and Ehime prefectures said they would not share information on at-home COVID-19 patients. Nagano and Ehime said that either the prefecture or the health center could handle the matter, while Nara said its prefectural ordinance on protecting privacy stipulates that a person’s medical history “must be handled carefully.”

“Sharing information on patients staying at home can lead to discrimination and prejudice,” a Nara prefectural official said.

On Sept. 6, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry issued a notice asking prefectural governments to consider sharing personal information because sharing information to support people’s daily lives is an “urgent matter.”

Nara Prefecture, however, believes the situation is not urgent, as COVID-19 patients in the prefecture would either be hospitalized or treated in designated facilities in principle.

Nevertheless, some municipalities in Nara Prefecture are calling for information to be shared. The city of Tenri was among the group of municipalities that submitted a joint written request to Nara Prefecture at the end of August, demanding the sharing of information on COVID-19 patients staying at home.

Tenri Mayor Ken Namikawa told reporters, “We’re in the undesirable position of only being able to support residents who ask for help, because the prefectural government doesn’t share people’s personal information.”

Municipalities grateful

Many municipalities are welcoming prefectural authorities’ moves to share information on COVID-19 patients and expressing relief, as they can now prepare for a possible resurgence in infections.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?” a public health nurse in Mitaka, Tokyo, asked during a call to the home of a university student.

The nurse called in mid-November, after the city received information about the student from the Tokyo metropolitan government. The student’s parents told the nurse about their child’s symptoms and what kind of supplies they needed.

In Mitaka, about 400 people were staying at home at the peak of the infections in August. Mitaka and five other cities in Tokyo are under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan government’s Tama Fuchu Public Health Center.

At that time, the Tokyo metropolitan government did not share information on COVID-19 patients to city governments, in order to protect individuals’ privacy. Feeling that it failed to support homebound patients in a timely manner during the fifth wave of the pandemic, Tokyo changed its policy and decided to share information after signing a document on preventing information leaks with municipalities.

Mitaka established on Oct. 1 a consultation center where nurses access a database shared with the metropolitan government every day to check names, addresses and contact information for COVID-19 patients at home, call them and send food and daily necessities if needed.

“Our strength as a city is the ability to respond to detailed requests,” the center’s section chief said. “We’re accumulating knowledge and experience, to be ready for a rapid increase of patients in a sixth wave.”

Gunma and Ishikawa, among other prefectures, have signed a memorandum with their municipalities on preventing information leaks. The Yamanashi prefectural government gets patients’ consent before sharing their information with municipalities concerned.

Information on COVID-19 patients is confidential, and prefectural governments must be cautious when sending it to municipalities.

The Fukuoka prefectural government has compiled a list of COVID-19 patients who gave the prefecture permission to share their information, divided by city, town and village, but so far has not shared any information with the municipalities, thanks to a lull in infections.

“We must share information as soon as possible. At the same time, though, we’re most concerned that information on patients who didn’t give their consent will be shared accidentally,” a prefectural official said, adding they are determined to check their list thoroughly.