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Japan's online coronavirus info sharing system sees low uptake among local gov'ts

In this April 30, 2020 file photo, employees at a public health and welfare center at a municipal office in the city of Osaka's Chuo Ward are seen answering calls from residents. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

TOKYO -- An online system for managing information on novel coronavirus patients in an integrated fashion that was launched by the national government in May has been slow in widespread implementation among local governments in Japan.

The online system, called "HER-SYS," allows the national government, local authorities and medical institutions to share information on COVID-19 patients. However, 39 local authorities, or about a quarter of the 155 local governments that run public health centers, had not yet begun using the system as of July 14. Delays in implementation have been observed in the prefectures of Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka, which have their own original programs and are said to be slow in switching systems. This means that a nationwide program for coronavirus data aggregation has not been firmly established even after half a year has passed since the first infection was confirmed in Japan on Jan. 16.

The HER-SYS system was inaugurated on May 29 with the aim to centralize the management of information on individuals who take polymerase chain reaction tests and antigen tests, including their names, gender, contact information, test results, and hospitalization status. Local governments and medical institutions can access the system using a designated ID and password.

Under this online system, medical institutions first input the patient's name, date of birth and contact information among other data when conducting tests. Public health centers and medical institutions subsequently update the information at certain stages, such as when results are revealed, when a patient is admitted to or leaves the hospital, and when a patient stays at and leaves a hotel offering accommodation for recuperation. Patients can also report their health status through the system on their own by using a designated ID, as the program also aims to follow up on those with mild symptoms.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government's infectious diseases control section, now faced with a surge of new infections, commented, "There are local bodies among Tokyo's special (23) wards that are not prepared to move data from their existing systems," and novel coronavirus-related reports from medical institutions and the wards' public health centers are still carried out mainly by fax. The prefectures of Osaka in western Japan and Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, are also having trouble with moving data from existing databases. The national government is arranging with local authorities to aim for all local governments to use the online system by the end of July.

The central government has not been able to grasp to what extent the new system is being used at medical institutions, even for prefectures that have already implemented it. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry explained, "Public health centers are in charge of providing an ID and password (for the system) to medical institutions, and the national government has not been able to grasp the state of usage."

The implementation of the online system also poses some challenges. There are many cases where public health centers input information on behalf of medical institutions that make reports on coronavirus patients by fax. This hinders the much called for reduction of the burden on public health centers. A related source from local authorities said of the HER-SYS system, "It is a system that will only have meaning if all local governments and medical institutions use it." The national government is discussing ways to encourage greater use of the system among medical institutions.

Meanwhile, a smartphone app that is capable of tracing infection routes to grasp the situation of individuals who have come into close contact with the infected was launched by the national government in June. But the number of users that have downloaded the app is at just around 6.8 million. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga admitted in a press conference on July 14 that the percentage of app users among coronavirus carriers is "limited." Touching on the HER-SYS system, he stated, "We would like to respond to the situation so that we can gain cooperation from many people."

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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