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Editorial: Tailored response needed to battle swift spread of omicron variant in Japan

The rapid spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has shown no signs of abating in Japan.

    Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has announced an expansion of the medical care system for people recuperating from COVID-19 at home, and said vaccine booster shots would also be brought forward.

    The government, meanwhile, has strengthened its medical care and health systems so that it can respond even if the scale of the latest wave of infections is double the level seen last summer.

    However, the omicron variant is said to be more infectious than the delta strain that triggered the fifth wave of infections last year. At the same time, there are reports that omicron infections are less likely to develop into severe cases of COVID-19. The government must take measures that are more in line with the characteristics of this variant.

    So far, many infected people either have only light symptoms or no symptoms of COVID-19 at all. Nevertheless, there remain people who are at high risk, and it is necessary to ascertain who those people are and link this to treatment. Local bodies should make every effort to collaborate with medical clinics and other facilities that are checking up on the condition of those convalescing at home.

    Just 0.8% of Japan's population has received a vaccine booster shot, and we cannot deny there has been a sense of delay. The government must clarify who has priority for vaccinations, such as people with underlying medical conditions, in addition to medical workers and the elderly, and speed up the pace of inoculations.

    The government is preparing to resume large-scale vaccinations by the Self-Defense Forces. But it is difficult for elderly people to make use of vaccination venues that are far away. The government needs to consider accessible approaches.

    One issue that has newly arisen is how to cope with the lack of workers caused by the surge of infected people and those who have had close contact with them. In Okinawa Prefecture, over 500 workers are absent from medical institutions that accept coronavirus patients -- more than twice the figure seen during the fifth wave of infections -- and there have already been cases in which some emergency and other care providers have had to stop accepting patients.

    It is important to utilize mechanisms to dispatch medical workers to assist facilities in need. In times of emergency, people who have been in close contact with infected people are permitted to work if they meet certain conditions, such as being tested for the virus every day. Awareness needs to be raised among medical institutions.

    Medical facilities are not the only places threatened with a shortage of staff. If the functions of transit systems and administrative services such as nursing care and garbage collection stagnate, then it will have a large impact on life in society.

    The government says it intends to shorten the 14-day home standby period for those who have been in close contact with infected people. It should make revisions based on scientific knowledge, and carefully explain its measures.

    What the government needs to provide is a dual strategy that maintains social functions that support the lives of the people, while restraining the number of people who develop severe symptoms of COVID-19.

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