With numbers of COVID-19 cases in Tokyo on the rise — including a record 888 new infections reported Thursday in the city — many planning visits home for the New Year’s holidays are hoping to take precautions before they go, in turn generating a surge in demand for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing at facilities run by private institutions in the capital.
But the health ministry is warning that such unofficial testing comes with pitfalls, citing the possibility of false results, both positive and negative, as well as the absence of any obligation for operators to report positive results to municipalities.
On Wednesday morning, visitors were queuing up to get tested at one such facility in Tokyo.
A few minutes’ walk from Shimbashi Station, the testing center is run by a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Kinoshita Group, which also runs construction and nursing companies.
Ever since its debut earlier this month, it has been inundated with requests for reservations from those interested in its quick, low-cost testing priced at about ¥3,000.
Such is the level of interest that the center is fully booked for the rest of the year, according to a Kinoshita Group spokeswoman who declined to be named. There is also brisk demand at a similar outlet the firm opened in the red-light district of Kabukicho in the capital earlier this week, she said.
“I’m planning a trip back home to Niigata Prefecture this weekend, so I thought I might as well get myself tested before that,” said 41-year-old Saitama Prefecture resident Naoki Misawa, one of the visitors lining up at the Shimbashi center on Wednesday.
“Being able to discern whether I have the virus now will give me a bit of peace of mind when I return home.”
That sentiment was echoed by 19-year-old university student Keita Nomura, who was also eyeing a family get-together during the holidays in his hometown in Fukushima Prefecture. Undergoing the test as a precaution would “allow me to go back home without feeling guilty,” he said before entering the center.
Nomura emerged just a few minutes later. “That was easy,” he said. “I made a payment first and was then given a testing kit with a plastic straw to put my saliva in. I handed the sample over, and that was it,” he said, adding he expects to get the result emailed by the following morning at the latest.
The testing center operator is confident that it can contribute to the government’s efforts to balance the resumption of economic activity and containment of the virus.
“We believe the periodic testing and management of our own health is an essential part of our ‘new normal’ that allows for this balancing act,” the Kinoshita Group spokeswoman said.
“But it’s not realistic to expect everyone to shell out ¥10,000-plus every month to get tested. In this regard, I think what we are doing here is meaningful in that it makes high-quality PCR testing fairly accessible,” she said, adding that the health ministry has vouched for the precision of the test kits being used by the firm.
A similar testing facility run by a subsidiary of Yokohama-based bioscience venture K.K. Dnaform has also opened near Tokyo Station, likewise touting affordable testing — priced at ¥1,980 — on samples that take only 30 seconds to collect.
But concerns persist over private-sector testing. For one thing, some of these facilities merely notify visitors of their test results but are not obliged to report them to public health authorities. As a result, many positive cases they detect end up not being included in the official tally of infections.
The Infectious Diseases Control Law obliges doctors to report those diagnosed with COVID-19 to municipalities, but private institutions where testing does not involve a doctors’ diagnosis are relieved of this obligation.
On the other hand, testing sites run by or affiliated with medical institutions tend to have doctors present, in which case patients are reported, health minister Norihisa Tamura told a news conference earlier this month.
“There are many cases where people visit facilities unaffiliated with medical institutions and test positive, only to end up going adrift,” he said.
The Kinoshita Group urges those who test positive to visit nearby hospitals when notifying those individuals of their results, so that doctors can retest them and, if necessary, report their cases to the local government.
But many of those suspected COVID-19 patients, the spokeswoman said, have been rejected by hospitals, which has prompted the firm to instead introduce them to clinics under its own umbrella.
Adding to the worry is the inherent fallibility of PCR testing, which can’t entirely rule out the possibility of false negatives or false positives — a weakness further compounded by the absence of doctors at some private institutions.
“Even if the test results come back negative, there’s no guarantee that you are virus-free unless the doctor pronounces you to be so,” the health ministry writes on its website, cautioning visitors against private testing facilities.
The ministry is currently looking to compile and disclose a list of private institutions that conduct PCR testing, alongside details such as whether they have doctors present and the measures they take to ensure the accuracy of tests.
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