Japan finds itself at a critical juncture for the next week or two in the effort to prevent a rapid increase in domestic infections of the COVID-19 coronavirus, according to a panel of infectious disease experts who are advising the government. Yet the government’s basic policies released earlier this week — which essentially follow guidelines already announced by the health ministry — do not appear to share that sense of crisis. Efforts to contain the domestic outbreak of COVID-19 can attain greater speed by anticipating and taking steps to avoid a worst-case scenario in which the nation’s medical system collapses under the weight of mass infections.
The focus of the fight against COVID-19 has shifted from a prevention of cross-border infections to forestalling a mass domestic outbreak. A panel of experts has stated that the priority now is to curb an increase in new infections and minimize the number of people who develop serious symptoms that can lead to fatalities. The panel has warned of the possibility of mass infections being unknowingly spread by infected individuals, and urges everyone to refrain from attending gatherings and events where they will be in close contact with large numbers of people over an extended period.
In the basic policies unveiled Tuesday, however, the government said it would not uniformly call on organizers to cancel or postpone such events, but instead ask them to think twice about the necessity of the gatherings — wording that reportedly reflected the government’s aversion to discouraging economic activities. But on Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the government is now requesting that sports and cultural events involving large numbers of participants over the coming two weeks be canceled, delayed or scaled down.
Given the spike in infections among people who have no recent history of travel to China — where the outbreak originated — a major challenge going forward will be to prevent the collapse of medical services for treating COVID-19 patients and others.
So far, people infected with the new coronavirus are being cared for at hospitals designated for treating infectious diseases that are equipped with airtight facilities to prevent an outflow of viruses. But many of these medical institutions in the greater Tokyo area are now filled with hundreds of patients who were infected aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess, raising concerns over a shortage of artificial respirators needed for treating COVID-19 patients who have developed pneumonia. A warning has been issued stating that an escalation in mass infections under such circumstances would overwhelm the capacity of these medical institutions, placing at risk patients — including those suffering from other illnesses — whose lives could be saved in normal circumstances.
Under the government’s basic policies, in areas that have witnessed a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 patients, hospitals that are not designated for treating infectious disease patients will be asked to accept people with possible coronavirus infections on the condition that they be kept isolated from other patients. Reports show that undesignated hospitals in many parts of the country are not prepared to accept COVID-19 patients under these conditions. Efforts must be expedited to establish guidelines for these hospitals so they can take the necessary steps to accept such patients safely and avert a concentration of many possibly infected people at a small number of hospitals.
Everyone has a role to play in preventing the spread of COVID-19. People who fear they might be infected but do not have serious symptoms should refrain from going to medical institutions, which would use valuable medical resources that are needed by people who are actually ill and also raise the risk of further spreading the disease. Experts on infectious diseases warn that medical institutions can become incubators for mass infections. The government must introduce concrete measures to ensure that, as its basic policies call for, people with mild, cold-like symptoms can feel secure staying at home instead of visiting hospitals.
One way to ease people’s sense of insecurity over the outbreak would be to increase the availability of COVID-19 virus tests — the supply of which is limited. That would allow more people to take tests and stop them from unknowingly spreading the disease. Health minister Katsunobu Kato told the Diet on Wednesday that an average of roughly 900 tests for the new virus were performed daily over the previous week — far below the daily maximum of 3,800 tests that the government earlier said would be possible. The relevant authorities should resolve the problems that have hampered an increase in the supply of virus tests and take steps — including the greater use of private sector resources — to make them available for all people who wish to take them.
The Japan Times Editorial Board