Japan eyes online flu diagnosis to ease strain on medical institutions

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A person receives an influenza shot in Fukuoka City in December 2020.

The government has drafted measures to deal with a simultaneous outbreak of the novel coronavirus and seasonal influenza, it has been learned.

The main pillar of the measures is to encourage people with a fever to self-test at home for COVID-19. If a negative test is returned, they would then receive an online diagnosis for flu, with pharmacies delivering medication where appropriate.

The government’s aim is to limit in-person treatment and prevent medical institutions from becoming overwhelmed. Municipalities will be notified once the measures are fully defined — possibly as early as next week.

Under the current system, people who have a low risk of developing a serious illness do not, in principle, visit fever outpatient departments, but rather register the result of a self-test with a local government follow-up center.

If a person has a fever but tests negative for COVID-19, they are likely to be infected with influenza or another virus. If the novel coronavirus and influenza were to suddenly spread concurrently, medical institutions offering fever outpatient services could be inundated with people exhibiting flu symptoms, which could hinder the treatment of patients at high risk of becoming seriously ill due to the coronavirus or influenza.

The new measures will thus recommend that people be diagnosed by a physician online if they have a fever but have tested negative for COVID-19. If a person is diagnosed to have influenza and to be in need of treatment with Tamiflu, they can recuperate at home while receiving online guidance from a pharmacist.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry plans to request that medical institutions introduce online medical care and will reiterate its view that it is possible to diagnose influenza online without testing. Since the new measures will pivot around self-testing for the coronavirus, the government will make every effort to secure sufficient test kits.

People at high risk of becoming seriously ill with influenza — such as elderly people and infants — will be treated at fever outpatient clinics regardless of self-test results. The government is currently working out the scope of eligibility for such treatment.

Influenza usually spreads from December to March, and about 10 million people are infected each year. In the past two years, however, there has been no mass outbreak, partly due to the effect of measures taken against the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts in countermeasures against infectious diseases submitted Wednesday a report to the ministry’s advisory body on a simultaneous corona-flu outbreak, stating that there is a very high possibility of such an occurrence between October and March.