As coronavirus cases mount and the health care system becomes strained due to the omicron variant, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Thursday that the government is considering shortening the isolation period for close contacts from the current 14 days.

“We need to consider flexible measures as necessary,” Kishida told reporters in the morning. “Experts are pointing out the need to consider ways for societal functions to be maintained even if infections spread rapidly.”

So far, figures show the percentage of severe omicron cases is lower compared with past variants, but experts have warned against complacency. On Wednesday, 13,244 new COVID-19 cases were reported nationwide, with the tally of severe infections standing at 105.

Later in the day, a group of infectious disease experts announced a draft proposal that recommended isolation periods for close contacts be shortened to 10 days in principle, NHK reported.

The National Governors’ Association proposed Wednesday that the government rethink the period of isolation and hospitalization for coronavirus patients and their close contacts.

“If the virus spreads rapidly, there is a possibility that all Tokyo residents, including medical workers and other essential workers, will either be infected or become a close contact,” Gov. Yuriko Koike said Thursday during a metropolitan government meeting. “There is a chance that activities in society will be forced to be suspended because of that.”

In recent weeks, other countries have eased their isolation policies.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises COVID-19 patients isolate for five days. If they were originally asymptomatic or no longer have symptoms, they need to wear a mask when they go out for another five days.

In Europe, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has urged unvaccinated individuals with COVID-19 to isolate for 14 days, which can be shortened to 10 days if they test negative on day 10.

On Thursday, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government raised its COVID-19 alert to the second highest of four levels. It was last at that level in September.

Koike said Tokyo will consider asking the central government to declare a quasi-emergency measure when 20% of the capital’s hospital beds set aside for coronavirus patients are occupied, and a state of emergency when the figure tops 50%. At present, 13.7% of its hospital beds are occupied.

Tokyo reported 3,124 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the first time it topped the 3,000 mark since Sept. 2.

Confirming an earlier policy, the health ministry on Wednesday notified municipalities nationwide that doctors and nurses can continue working even if they are designated as close contacts provided that they test negative for the coronavirus every day before they start work.

Even though that policy had been in place since August, it had not been clear if it applied to omicron cases as well.

In Okinawa Prefecture, which is currently under quasi-emergency measures, a record 628 medical workers who work in hospitals that treat coronavirus patients were absent from work as of Wednesday because they were considered to be close contacts of COVID-19 patients. The situation had strained hospitals, prompting some of them to stop accepting emergency patients.

Amid the rapid spread of the omicron variant, the government is revising its measures in real time, sometimes tightening restrictions as an initial first step and then relaxing them if the situation is deemed stable.

Earlier this month, the government withdrew a policy of hospitalizing all people infected with the omicron variant and allowed some patients to recover at home or at lodging facilities.

According to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, which analyzed omicron cases in Okinawa Prefecture, the incubation period for the latest variant is about three days, shorter than the roughly five days seen in past variants.

Information from Jiji added

CORRECTION: This story has been amended to reflect the fact that the shortened period only applies to the isolation for close contacts. An earlier version mistakenly referred to a shortened hospitalization and recuperation period.

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