The health ministry is considering easing guidelines on when to consult the authorities over suspected coronavirus infections so more people can seek help at an early stage, health minister Katsunobu Kato said Wednesday.
The new guidelines are expected to recommend immediate consultations to those feeling strong fatigue, shortness of breath or high fever, or suffering relatively mild cold symptoms for at least four days, even if their fever is not above 37.5 Celsius.
The revised guidelines will be released as early as this week, according to ministry officials.
Under the current government-set guidelines, released in February, those suspecting a COVID-19 infection are to call special consultation centers set up at local public health offices. They will be allowed to take polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests if doctors find such tests necessary.
PCR tests for the virus are only carried out on people who have symptoms such as a fever of 37.5 C or higher for at least four days — two in the case of the elderly — those with a chronic disease and pregnant women.
Critics say that the strict criteria have discouraged many from calling the consultation centers while some centers refuse to provide consultations to those who have not fully met the criteria.
The current guidelines were worked out during the influenza season. At that time, it was important to distinguish coronavirus symptoms from flu symptoms, officials said. The guidelines were also meant to block people with mild symptoms from swamping hospitals so as to designate medical resources to patients in severe condition.
"We'll bring the guidelines in line with the current situation, based on the opinions of experts," Kato said.
"Average body temperatures vary among people, so 37.5 degrees could also be considered a high temperature," Kato said. "There have been cases where conditions worsen rapidly," he said.
The number of PCR tests carried out in Japan has been very low due to a lack of human resources and advance preparation. The government is hoping to ramp up its capacity and conduct 20,000 such tests a day.
According to data disclosed by a government panel of experts, Japan has conducted 188 PCR tests per 10,000 people, while many other countries have done more than 1,000.
In late April, the ministry shifted its policy of having patients with asymptomatic or mild cases recuperate on their own, following the cases of two men in Saitama Prefecture who were self-isolating at home but died when their conditions suddenly took a turn for the worse.
Based on a nationwide survey on the state of facilities housing COVID-19 patients, the ministry found that of the total of 8,711 patients surveyed, 1,984 are in their homes, compared with 862 in hotels and other accommodations.
Those who tested positive and are hospitalized accounted for the largest number at 5,558, with 147 at social welfare facilities for the elderly and people with disabilities, while the rest are in unconfirmed locations, according to the study released Wednesday. The figures as of April 28 were obtained from prefectural governments.
Amid moves to develop therapeutic drug and vaccines worldwide, Kitasato University in Tokyo said Wednesday it will launch clinical trials on the drug Ivermectin, an effective treatment for parasitic diseases. Satoshi Omura, professor emeritus at the university and a Nobel laureate, helped develop the drug, seen overseas as a possible coronavirus treatment.