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More COVID-19 patients in Japan can't return to work even after stay-at-home period ends

Central Tokyo is seen in this file photo taken in the capital's Minato Ward. (Mainichi/Kimitaka Takeichi)

TOKYO -- There has been an increasing number of people in Japan who have contracted the coronavirus and are unable to return to work after being asked to stay at home for extended periods.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare asks coronavirus patients with no symptoms to recuperate at home or in hotels for 10 days, as a general rule. Under these national standards, patients are allowed to return to their workplaces after that period, as the virus' transmissibility becomes extremely low. Patients with mild symptoms are also subject to the additional condition of waiting for three more days after recovering from their symptoms, and once the period is over, work restrictions put in place by prefectural authorities in accordance with the infectious disease law are also lifted.

    However, there has been a growing number of cases where workers are asked to stay at home for an extended and unneeded period past the roughly 10 days, by employers that claim they are giving the orders "just in case."

    Until spring last year, confirmation of testing negative for the virus in two consecutive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests was required to have work restrictions lifted. However, it was revealed in subsequent research that the transmissibility of the virus drops rapidly once around a week passes from the onset of symptoms, even if the virus still remains inside the body, and the standards were eased last June. Companies have also been notified that they do not need to have employees submit certifications proving they tested negative upon their return.

    However, there have been a series of instances where individuals could not return to work for an extended period, with one insisting, "The national government's standards are not well known, and 'coronavirus discrimination' is spreading as a result."

    A woman in her 30s, who works at a hospital in the Kanto region of eastern Japan, recuperated at a hotel from mid-November after she found out that she had contracted the novel coronavirus. Her work restrictions were lifted 10 days later and although she was worried about leaving the hotel without knowing whether she tested negative, she was informed by public health center staff that she did not need to take any further tests, and thereby thought she could return to her workplace.

    However, she was told by her boss that they could not allow her to return to work until she could obtain two consecutive test results confirming she is not infected with the virus, based on internal rules that the hospital had created around the time of the "first wave" of infections in Japan.

    The woman took PCR tests, but continued to get positive results back as it appeared that the virus remained inside her body. The woman insisted that even then, there was no risk of getting others infected, but the hospital wouldn't listen as it wanted to take precautionary measures, and she had no choice but to stay at home.

    It was eventually confirmed in later tests that she was no longer infected with the virus, and she was able to return to work at last in early January. "Even though the national government's standards are indicated, I feel that the information has not spread among workplaces or companies at all. I want administrative bodies to strengthen efforts to publicize it to reach companies and other entities."

    For part-time workers who get paid on an hourly basis, being forced to stay at home for long periods will lead to a sharp decrease in income.

    A female part-time worker in her 40s who lives in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Fukuoka contracted the coronavirus in late November with her husband. She developed symptoms including taste disorder, and ended her recuperation at home in early December. She then informed her boss immediately that her work restrictions had been lifted, and expressed the desire to work.

    However, although the woman's boss was understanding of her situation, she was asked to take a test due to instructions from an affiliated company at which the woman works. The woman explained about the national standards for lifting work restrictions, and also submitted a notice sent from the local government authorizing her to return to work, but was ordered to stay at home for another two weeks from the day the work ban was technically lifted.

    Although she was promised that she was eligible to receive compensation for temporary leave during the period she stayed at home, she was actually paid less than a half of her average salary. Her self-employed husband has also apparently been increasingly shunned by business contacts, and the couple shoulders endless financial concerns. The woman said, "I'd like the company to educate itself more, and want society as a whole to recognize that negative certification is unnecessary (for returning to work)."

    (Japanese original by Yongho Lee, Machida Resident Bureau)

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