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Seemingly alarmed by the unprecedented speed with which the omicron variant is spreading across the country, the government has been forced to make another revision to its COVID-19 policies, including shortening the isolation period for close contacts and the timetable for administering booster shots.

Amid reports that the highly contagious variant is now estimated to account for more than 80% of new cases, health minister Shigeyuki Goto announced later Friday that people who have been designated as a COVID-19 close contact only need to isolate for 10 days, down from the current 14 days. For essential workers, the period will be even shorter — just six days — if they test negative on the sixth day. Municipalities can decide who is considered an essential worker, he said.

The move comes amid concerns that if more people get infected, thereby increasing the number of close contacts, there will come a point where most business and social activities will be shut down because of the need for either treatment or isolation.

According to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, a person infected with omicron is most infectious from the third to sixth day after diagnosis or the onset of illness.

In addition, the likelihood that people are infectious after the tenth day is low if they have been vaccinated twice and only have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, the NIID noted on its website on Thursday.

Omicron cases accounted for 84% of all reported cases between Jan. 3 and Sunday based on preliminary figures, up from 46% the week before, according to government data.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends a Cabinet meeting in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends a Cabinet meeting in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO

On Friday, more than 20,000 new cases were reported nationwide, the first time the tally has exceeded the figure since Sept. 1.

Meanwhile, the health ministry has decided to shorten the timeline for booster shots for those age 64 and below, bringing the interval down by a month to seven months after a second dose.

The ministry on Thursday also slashed the interval by a month for those age 65 and above not on the priority list, encompassing around 17 million people, shifting the gap to six months. The revision means that some members of the general public can now get the booster starting in March. The interval for the workplace vaccination program, which is set to start in March using Moderna Inc.’s vaccines, was also shortened by a month to seven months.

The government in October initially planned to administer third doses at least eight months after second shots, but it has been forced to move forward the schedule amid consensus in the medical industry that the ideal interval for a booster is six months or even earlier, as the vaccines’ efficacy starts to wane significantly after as little as three months.

About a month ago, the gap for the priority list — 6 million health care workers and 9 million people who live or work at elderly care homes — was trimmed to six months, while the interval for other elderly populations was cut to seven months. But worries over supply shortages are preventing the government from committing to a uniform six-month time frame for all people.

It has been already more than a 10-month gap for some health care workers on the priority list, who received their initial doses soon after Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine was authorized in February. In addition, the interval for members of the general public who got the vaccine last June is already past six months.

A man gets a booster shot at an elderly care facility in Tokyo's Koto Ward on Dec. 20. | KYODO
A man gets a booster shot at an elderly care facility in Tokyo’s Koto Ward on Dec. 20. | KYODO

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said the government will make efforts to further speed up the rollout, adding that the government was recently able to procure 18 million more doses of Moderna’s vaccines, which will be supplied between January and March.

“We will do as much as we can to shorten the timing to six months from seven months for the general public,” he said late Thursday on a TBS news program. “If the amount of secured doses increases, we would like to move the schedule forward even further.”

Experts say the vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, urging eligible residents to get third doses as soon as possible amid mounting evidence of their importance.

Japan began administering booster shots on Dec. 1, starting with health care workers. But the rollout has been slow, with only 1.12 million shots administered in total as of Thursday — accounting for 0.9% of eligible residents — according to the Cabinet Secretariat data. To accelerate the rollout, the health ministry says it plans to distribute 16.5 million more doses than previously planned by the end of March and deliver a total 85 million doses by early April, which is equivalent to roughly 85% of eligible residents.

Vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer have been authorized as booster shots for people age 18 and over who are at least six months removed from their initial doses. The government is recommending people receive a different shot for their third dose from the one they received in the initial rollout, with many hospitals being allocated both vaccines.

First and second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been authorized for use in Japan for people age 12 and older. The health ministry’s expert panel is set to meet Thursday to discuss expanding the use of Pfizer vaccines to children age 5 to 11.

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