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Osaka Prefecture said Friday it was considering implementing changes to its COVID-19 contact-tracing system in coming months so that more infected people would be able to use it to report their infection status, curbing the spread of the disease.

The Osaka COVID-19 Tracing System was launched on May 29 last year, soon after the full lifting of the nation’s first state of emergency. But during its seven months of operations, the system issued alert messages to registered users only six times in December.

The system allows owners and managers of Osaka restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other facilities to sign up and track novel coronavirus infections.

The prefecture sends them a QR code they can print out and display at the entrance of their venue. Customers can use their smartphones to scan the QR code and access an online registration form, where they can provide their email address.

If it is later discovered that someone who was in the same establishment on the same day has become infected with the virus, customers who registered will be notified by email. They are then able to contact prefectural authorities for more information.

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura hailed the system at its launch as one of the nation’s first such initiatives to track infections.

“By registering with the QR code system, we can keep track of infections and better prepare for a possible second wave of the novel coronavirus,” he said on June 1 of last year.

A total of 61,000 facilities in the prefecture, including nearly 36,000 restaurants, pubs, bars and coffee shops, have displayed QR codes for the system, and an average of around 10,000 to 16,000 e-mail addresses are being registered on a daily basis, says Ayano Koizumi, an Osaka Prefectural official responsible for its management.

But the tracing system ended up issuing no alerts between May and November partly because there was no obligation for people to report to it their COVID-19 positive status.

On Dec. 1 last year, the prefecture started using information collected by public health centers about visits by infected people to the facilities registered with the tracing system.

The prefecture had previously required multiple infections to be reported at a large facility before an alert would be issued, but it also removed that hurdle in December, allowing warnings to be issued after single cases were reported and irrespective of the size of the facility.

According to Koizumi, the small number of alerts issued so far may give the impression that the system is not being run efficiently, but another reason for the limited alerts is that the system only sends them when it can confirm an individual visited the facility while they were infectious.

She added that Osaka’s six alerts were not low among the 23 or more prefectures that are operating similar systems. Tokyo also has a system to track infections at its public facilities but so far no alerts have been issued, an official with the metropolitan government said.

A total of about 500 people have reported their infections so far, Koizumi said, but if an infected person visited a venue more than three days before they started to experience COVID-19 symptoms, that information would not be useful because the person would not have been contagious then.

After changes were made to the system in December, six alerts were issued last month. There have been none so far in January. Those who receive alerts via email can get tested for the virus for free, but there’s no obligation for them to do so.

So far, the QR codes in Osaka have been scanned and email addresses registered about 3.1 million times to date. Koizumi says the system itself is effective and different from the Japanese government-led smartphone app, named COCOA, in that it requires only the registration of an email address. COCOA alerts users who may have come into contact with the virus based on Bluetooth signals, which it uses to recognize other users of the app nearby.

Osaka Prefecture is considering introducing additional measures within a few months to increase the number of infected people who report infections, which it sees as the key to tracking the novel coronavirus pandemic, Koizumi said.

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