Govt aims to expand online medical services for possible double COVID, flu outbreak

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, speaks at a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday.

The government has announced a plan to expand online medical services in preparation for simultaneous outbreaks of COVID-19 and seasonal influenza in the coming winter months.

One of the plan’s main points calls for people to receive influenza examinations via telephone or online medical care in the event of a negative self-test for the novel coronavirus, targeting those from junior high school age to 64 years old who are at low risk of becoming seriously ill.

Kishida held a task force meeting to discuss measures against the possible simultaneous outbreak with representatives of the Japan Medical Association, the Japan Pharmaceutical Association and other organizations at the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday.

“We will promote the expansion of the health care system, including online medical services. We ask for your cooperation,” Kishida said.

The policy meeting outlined the flow of care patients will receive when they develop symptoms such as a fever.

The government plans to implement the measures by expanding online medical care so that fever outpatient sections can concentrate on those who are at high risk of serious illness.

Specifically, those at high risk for severe COVID-19 or influenza — such as elementary school students and younger, those 65 years of age and older, those with underlying medical conditions and pregnant women — are to be examined in person at a fever outpatient clinic.

Those from junior high school age to 64 years old who do not fall into those categories will be asked to test themselves with a simple test kit for the coronavirus.

Those who test negative for the novel coronavirus and are suspected of having influenza will have the option of undergoing examination and receiving their prescription for treatment by phone or online. However, given the small number of medical institutions that can provide online support, they will also be allowed to see their family doctor and receive other in-person consultations.

If they test positive for the coronavirus, patients will be treated at home, as in the past, after registering with the local government’s health follow-up center.

Experts have indicated a high possibility that a simultaneous outbreak of COVID-19 and influenza will occur this winter. The government estimates that a simultaneous outbreak would result in 750,000 patients per day at its peak: 450,000 for the coronavirus, about double the number in the seventh wave, and 300,000 for influenza.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s tally as of the end of August, there are approximately 17,800 hospitals and clinics that provide online medical services, less than 20% of the total number of facilities.

The government’s measures may become difficult to realize without further expansion of online medical services.