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Editorial: Flexible COVID care regime needs public cooperation to work

Amid the wildly surging cases of the coronavirus's omicron variant in Japan, the government has put forward a new policy for outpatient care at hospitals and clinics.

    The move comes as virus testing and hospital visits are stalled in some regions, and as 34 prefectures including Tokyo are under or set to go under coronavirus quasi-state of emergency measures. While Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has stressed that he has been taking the initiative, we have to say he is rather one step behind events.

    Authorities must take every possible step to support coronavirus patients recovering at home, to ensure they can respond to sudden changes in their conditions.

    The new policy will apply to people with lighter symptoms and at lower risk of developing severe COVID-19 in areas where outpatient care is beginning to bog down under the caseload. These individuals will be asked to take coronavirus tests on their own before visiting medical institutions. Furthermore, when patient numbers threaten to overwhelm outpatient services, people confirmed to have the virus in a self-administered test will be eligible for local health monitoring services without seeing a doctor.

    These steps are aimed at preventing outpatient care from ceasing to function as a gateway for treating patients, and effectively utilizing medical resources for people with severe symptoms.

    There remain concerns, however, over whether the new policy can be implemented properly.

    Firstly, there are worries about the stable supply of antigen test kits for self-checks. It has been reported that manufacturers cannot keep up with orders. We urge the creation of a system to ensure people that need the kits can get them.

    Another challenge is how to care for people who have tested positive. It is difficult for patients themselves or their family members to judge the risk of developing severe COVID-19. The government says patients can be seen by doctors if they want, but there have been cases where rigid application of hospital visit criteria resulted in delayed treatment. This must never happen again.

    If the focus is shifting to home recuperation, the authorities must arrange the proper health care environment.

    Medical institutions that have hitherto not accepted coronavirus patients in their outpatient wards can provide care while continuing to avoid infection risks by providing consultations online. We urge local governments to collaborate with local medical associations and boost the number of clinics carrying out online examinations.

    The wave of the highly transmissible omicron variant is forcing a shift in government coronavirus countermeasures. The existing frameworks cannot cope sufficiently with the surging infections, and there is a growing need to provide care for patients in accordance with their respective symptoms.

    A flexible response is imperative, but unless its viability is ensured it will only lead to concern and confusion. The government must clarify the linchpins of its countermeasures and make every effort to win public understanding and cooperation.

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