Japan getting ready for possibly simultaneous spread of flu, COVID-19 this winter

Courtesy of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases
The omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is seen in an electron micrograph.

Anticipating the “eighth wave” of the novel coronavirus epidemic, possibly this winter, the government intends to devise countermeasures as early as October.

Due to concerns about the simultaneous spread of COVID-19 and the seasonal flu this year, the government intends to hasten efforts to get the nation’s medical system ready for such an eventuality. One of the key measures involved will be accelerating the administration of new vaccines deemed effective against the omicron variant.

“In the past, infections [with COVID-19] have spread from the end of the year to the beginning of the new year. We must fully anticipate the next spike of infections,” Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato said on a Fuji Television program aired on Sunday.

At a Friday meeting of the government’s panel on measures against the novel coronavirus, chaired by Shigeru Omi, experts began discussing new countermeasures based on the experiences gained through the seventh wave of infections.

Measures for the eighth wave will take into account the possibility of the coronavirus and the seasonal flu spreading simultaneously.

Based on assumptions that it will be unclear if some patients are infected with the coronavirus or the flu until they are tested, one issue will be how to control congestion and disorder at facilities handling outpatients with fevers.

If the number of patients who are severely ill with the flu increases, especially among elderly people, it will be necessary to secure enough hospital beds for them. Also, people with the flu and those with COVID-19 will have to be kept in separate wards.

The ministry intends to establish a system for simultaneously vaccinating people against COVID-19 and the seasonal flu, mainly for the elderly who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill.

Administering new vaccines deemed to be effective against the omicron variant will be key to preventing people from getting infected with the novel coronavirus and developing severe symptoms. Vaccinations are to start in stages from Tuesday.

However, while the percentage of elderly people who have received a third shot is over 90%, the overall rate of third-round vaccinations stands at only 65%. The government plans to explain the effectiveness of the new vaccines and promote inoculations among young people.

In addition, there remains the issue that during previous waves of infection, some medical institutions accepted many infected patients, while others only admitted a limited number.

If the government revises the Infectious Diseases Control Law and other laws as it hopes to during an extraordinary Diet session this fall, relatively large hospitals will be obliged to secure enough beds for COVID-19 patients and provide such services as home visits.

However, the provisions for mandatory medical services are not expected to be implemented until next year, and the details of the services to be provided will depend on agreements reached in advance between prefectural governments and medical institutions. Small and midsize medical institutions, which account for the majority, will not be obligated to provide such services even after the laws are revised.

For the time being, therefore, the government intends to ask medical institutions to provide services to the greatest extent possible as required under the current laws. It hopes to avoid a medical crisis even if the eighth wave of infections spreads further than the seventh.