Japan’s efforts to avoid a domestic epidemic of the new coronavirus from China, rather than preparing for an influx in patients, may only be “delaying the inevitable.”
“My concern is that the government will think the country is secure because we’ve closed our borders,” says Koji Wada, a professor in public health at the International University of Health and Welfare.
Though Japan has barred entry to foreign nationals who have recently traveled near the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, the government faces the urgent task of preparing health care providers for a large number of patients.
“What needs to happen now is for the government to take proactive steps under the assumption that more domestic cases of infection will surface and the outbreak will continue to get worse.”
So far, 20 cases of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus have been reported in Japan, four of which occurred in Tokyo. As of Tuesday, the virus has killed at least 425 people and infected more than 20,000 in China alone.
On Monday, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced a new plan to prevent the coronavirus from spreading further. Anyone with breathing issues, a fever of 37.5 degrees Celsius or who has traveled to Wuhan or other places in Hubei province in the last two weeks — or has been in contact with anyone who fits the criteria — can use a call center to connect with one of 80 hospitals and, if necessary, get tested for the new coronavirus.
Those who test positive will be screened at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine before they’re admitted into one of 12 hospitals, which will be supported by about 190 medical institutions and more than 240 designated emergency facilities.
The city said it is aiming to have the call center up and running by this weekend.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike submitted an emergency request to the health ministry late Monday, calling on the government to amend its guidelines to allow testing of those who have been in close contact with an infected person even if they aren’t showing symptoms and allow the city to quarantine or isolate patients as is permitted in cases of the flu.
“Resources are limited and there’s always a possibility that hospitals will run out of something,” Wada said. “While Tokyo may be poised to deal with that, other parts of the country don’t have the same resources.”
Since last Wednesday, Japan has sent three chartered planes to evacuate roughly 560 Japanese nationals from Wuhan, the city thought to be where the new coronavirus originated. Upon landing at Haneda Airport, passengers showing signs of the virus were transported by ambulance to one of four public hospitals in the city, where they were then tested and, if necessary, confined to a pressurized room designed to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
After the first plane landed, five passengers were found to have coronavirus symptoms. Four of them were transported to Ebara Hospital in Ota Ward — which is said to have 11 pressurized hospital rooms — but receiving multiple patients in quick succession made it necessary for the fifth passenger to be transported to a different hospital instead, said the vice president of Ebara Hospital during a news conference last week at the metropolitan government.
“Distributing resources across all four hospitals was always part of the plan,” said Takayuki Higuchi of the Office of Metropolitan Hospital Management, which operates two of the four hospitals designated to receive passengers from the charter flights.
A fourth plane is slated to pick up some 140 nationals this week, the Foreign Ministry announced Sunday.
“The outbreak will probably continue for at least several more months,” Wada said. “It would be best that the national government comes up with a plan that accounts for the long-term issues.”