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Japan to ask virus carriers with mild or no symptoms to use medical-equipped lodgings

The Central Government Building No. 5 in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward that houses the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is seen in this file photo taken on Oct. 14, 2015. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The government on April 23 unveiled a basic plan for novel coronavirus carriers with mild or no symptoms of COVID-19 to stay at hotels or other medical-equipped facilities, following cases in which people resting at home have suddenly taken a turn for the worse or infected family members.

Under a policy outlined by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare on April 2, people with mild cases of the coronavirus were asked to either stay at home or at other lodgings so that hospitals could prioritize treatment of those with severe symptoms, though it made exceptions for the elderly and pregnant women. Under the new plan, such individuals will be asked to stay at medically equipped lodgings so they can receive treatment if their condition gets worse.

Some local governments, like the Osaka Prefectural Government in western Japan, have made it a priority for such people to stay at designated lodgings, but in Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo, 61 infected people remained at home while 65 others were using accommodation facilities as of April 22.

Public health centers phone patients resting at home once or twice a day to check if they have symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever and a cough, and they are to be immediately hospitalized if their condition worsens. But people at home do not have access to monitoring via pulse oximeters -- medical devices that check the oxygen saturation of a person's blood -- which the health ministry demands lodging facilities have.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters at an April 23 news conference, "Except for people who absolutely need to stay at home, such as parents who have children, we ask that people basically consider using a lodging facility." However, infected people will be allowed to stay at home if local governments have not managed to prepare such accommodations.

Experts have pointed out that managing the health of a coronavirus patient is hard. When people develop pneumonia, they gradually lose the ability to breathe in oxygen, but they do not feel suffocated right away. But once the oxygen saturation in a person's blood falls below a certain level, their condition suddenly takes a turn for the worse.

Fuminobu Ishikura, guest professor of cardiology at Osaka University, pointed out, "It's important not to decide just by subjective symptoms, but to medically keep track of a patient's condition, such as checking their oxygen concentration."

Infected people who have no choice but to remain at home must manage their own health. Yuji Morisawa, head of the infection control department at Jichi Medical University Hospital, commented, "If you suddenly cannot stop coughing, and you show symptoms of breathlessness, there's a danger that your condition will quickly become severe. Please don't hesitate to see a medical institution."

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Harada and Takuya Murata, Lifestyle and Medical News Department; Ryo Watanabe, Science & Medical News Department; and Takashi Kokaji, Regional News Department)

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