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Japan’s policy on in-flight omicron close contacts was brought into line with the definition for other coronavirus infections on Tuesday — two rows in front of and behind where the infected person was sitting — amid concerns that the central and local governments would run out of quarantine facilities for close contacts.

Health minister Shigeyuki Goto made the announcement Monday night, citing the low numbers of infected people who are suspected to have caught the virus during a flight.

“The percentage of passengers on the same flight who tested positive is the same level as those found to be infected after they went through quarantine procedures at airports,” Goto told reporters. “It is true that the number of close contacts will decrease, but it is based on objective evidence.”

When a passenger tests positive for the omicron variant of the coronavirus, family members and other passengers accompanying the individual will also be considered close contacts regardless of where they were sitting, Goto said.

When omicron was first detected in Japan in late November, the government expanded the definition of in-flight close contacts of people infected with the variant to all passengers. It later decided all those close contacts should quarantine at designated facilities or municipal-run accommodation for 14 days so that authorities could monitor them closely.

But the move significantly increased the number of people who needed to be quarantined at those facilities, prompting central and local authorities to scramble to ensure there were enough rooms and staff to make that happen. Some travelers were flown from Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture to other cities, including Osaka and Fukuoka, to be quarantined.

So far, the government has set aside 66,000 rooms nationwide for mildly ill and asymptomatic patients, along with close contacts.

The health ministry suspects about 80% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Japan are infected with omicron. Therefore, as a precaution the ministry will assume that all those who test positive for coronavirus upon arrival in Japan are infected with the variant.

Chiba Gov. Toshihito Kumagai welcomed the move on Monday, saying the expanded definition has led to an excessive workload for the prefectural government and its officials. Given Narita Airport’s location, the prefecture has been busy preparing accommodation for those who need to quarantine.

“The year-end season is when many people return to Japan, so it was important to make the decision as soon as possible,” Kumagai said.

Information from Kyodo added

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