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Reduced COVID isolation times welcomed as Okinawa's hospitals face staff crunch

A stethoscope is seen in this file photo. (Getty)

TOKYO -- Medical staff absences stemming from coronavirus-related isolation measures are becoming increasingly serious for Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa as the virus's omicron variant spreads.

    The government has responded by shortening isolation times for people who have had close contact with a coronavirus carrier from 14 to 10 days. But how much will this alleviate the pressure on the health care system? The Mainichi Shimbun examined the situation faced by medical facilities in the prefecture.

    At Okinawa Prefecture's 21 priority medical institutions for responding to the coronavirus, the number of staff members absent from work reached a record 681 people on Jan. 14. Of these, 198 are infected with the coronavirus, while the other 483 include those who have had close contact with infected individuals. It is said that many of the cases where people become close contacts arise from infections at their children's day care centers and other locations, and 14 of the 21 medical institutions are limiting their emergency and outpatient services.

    As of Jan. 11, around 50 people were absent from work at the prefectural government-run Okinawa Chubu Hospital in the city of Uruma. On the same day, outpatient acceptance and hospitalizations were restricted as a general rule. At Naha City Hospital on Jan. 11, too, outpatient admittance was suspended for the time being, and hospitalizations were limited to serious emergencies.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has again sent out notices stating that individuals deemed to have had close contact with infected persons can attend work so long as they are symptomless and test negative for the virus in daily tests. Naha City Hospital, too, has begun reducing the isolation period for close contacts to seven days, and allowing staff to come to work if they test negative. But staff shortages at the hospital reportedly didn't improve enough for them to lift limits on patient examinations.

    Regarding why absences have continued despite the government's notifications, Jiro Fujita, a professor in infectious diseases and pulmonology at the University of the Ryukyus who heads the Okinawa Prefectural Government's expert advisory panel on coronavirus prevention measures, said, "There were many cases where, due to schools and day care facilities closing in response to spreading infections, adults had no choice but to take time off work because children had to be watched at home."

    One hospital official told the Mainichi Shimbun: "Community transmission is continuing. If the isolation period is reduced, then it also reduces the number of days when tests need to be administered, which in turn reduces our burden and is a help."

    (Japanese original by Yuki Nakagawa and Naomi Hayashi, Lifestyle and Medical News Department, and Seiho Akimaru, Tokyo City News Department)

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