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Japan's health ministry urges preparations for 6th COVID wave amid lull in new cases

People head toward a train station in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on the evening of Oct. 1, 2021, the day a coronavirus state of emergency for the capital was lifted. (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

TOKYO -- The Japanese health ministry has sent a notice to prefectural governments requesting that they review their medical systems in preparation for a sixth wave of coronavirus infections in the winter, when a viral spread is feared.

    The main pillars of measures to cope with another case surge are securing medical workers and beds for COVID-19 patients -- including at temporary medical facilities -- on the premise that Japan could be hit with around the same level of infections seen during the fifth wave this summer, when medical care systems came under severe strain. Through these measures, officials hope to provide a seamless response to patients.

    In response to the notice sent out on Oct. 1, prefectural governments will prepare systems by the end of November.

    The state of emergency covering 19 prefectures across Japan was fully lifted from the beginning of October, but the number of people infected with the coronavirus during the fifth wave greatly exceeded the planned numbers of hospital beds, and there were numerous cases of people unable to be hospitalized dying at home.

    This time around, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare presented its definition of medical system preparations to the prefectural governments. One senior ministry official described it as a "comprehensive strategy" based on the fact that it is difficult for medical institutions to increase beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients at the same time as maintaining general medical care.

    Specifically, the strategy involves establishing regional systems for doctors and other medical workers to join in monitoring people's conditions after getting a positive COVID-19 test -- a task previously done by local public health centers alone. When infections spread, all infected people will be contacted either on the day or the day after their positive result, and depending on their condition, they will be able to have their health monitored or undergo medical examinations. Those recuperating at home will be able to receive medical care such as antibody cocktail treatments to prevent them from developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

    For at least severely ill COVID-19 patients and those with moderate symptoms who need oxygen, as well as those with higher risks of developing severe symptoms, preparations will be made to quickly hospitalize them. Furthermore, should it take time to find hospitals to accept patients, local governments will utilize makeshift medical facilities or hospitalization waiting stations to create a path to hospitalization while offering the patients peace of mind. Coordination of hospital transfers if the person needs to be hospitalized again after recovering will also be centralized. Regional medical workers will be listed up, and officials will make decisions in advance so that those workers can be dispatched if necessary.

    Prefectural governments will be asked to settle on a course of action in October. In an Oct. 1 news conference, health minister Norihisa Tamura commented, "We'd like to collaborate with prefectures, and improve the system to provide medical care."

    (Japanese original by Shunsuke Kamiashi, and Takashi Kokaji, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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