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Japan mulls penalty of up to $9,600 for COVID-19 patients refusing hospitalization

The National Diet Building (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is set to table a legal revision bill that would impose fines of up to 1 million yen (about $9,620) on COVID-19 patients with mild or no symptoms who refuse to be admitted to hospitals, it has been revealed.

    The government is looking at submitting the bill to revise the current infectious disease control law by the end of January, during the current regular Diet session.

    With hospital beds for COVID-19 patients filling up fast, straining the medical system, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has asked individuals showing mild or no symptoms to recuperate at home or at facilities designated by local governments, except for elderly people and those with preexisting medical conditions. The current infectious disease control law does not stipulate any penalties in cases where individuals do not obey hospitalization advisories or orders, and there is also no legal basis for recuperation at non-hospital facilities.

    If passed, the revision bill would make it mandatory for asymptomatic individuals and those with mild symptoms to recuperate at home or at local government-designated facilities. If such individuals leave these places without permission, or refuse to follow official recuperation requests, the prefectural governor will advise them to be hospitalized.

    Although medical fees for COVID-19 patients are currently covered by the public purse, people admitted to hospital after disobeying recuperation requests will have to cover their own treatment costs. The fine, currently being considered at 1 million yen or less, would apply to people who still refuse to be hospitalized, even after advisories or compulsory hospitalization orders.

    The bill is aimed at bolstering coronavirus countermeasures and recuperation through binding measures, as there have been cases where infected individuals may have spread the virus by going out at their own discretion.

    On the proposed fine amount, a source close to the government and ruling parties said, "It's balanced, taking into account the other punishments under the infectious diseases control law," which include lifetime imprisonment, or either imprisonment for at least two years or a fine of up to 10 million yen for people who "emit (highly dangerous pathogens) carelessly, thereby endangering the public." However, some opposition lawmakers are seeking careful consideration of penalty clauses, and the government is moving to make swift adjustments.

    The national government also plans to remove COVID-19 from its current category of "designated infectious diseases," and instead add it to "infectious diseases including new influenza strains" under the infectious disease control law. This recategorization would strip quarantine officials of the authority to place asymptomatic patients in isolation or prevent them from leaving. Therefore, the government will also consider revising the quarantine law such that officials will retain their current powers.

    (Japanese original by Ai Yokota and Sooryeon Kim, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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