Daily counts of fresh COVID-19 cases across Japan continue to cause alarm. The number of serious and fatal cases is also on the rise, and experts are warning that deaths from the latest, seventh wave of the pandemic could surpass the record high registered in the sixth wave.
The latest surge is taking a heavy toll on a broad spectrum of society. The most urgent policy challenge is to ease the enormous strain on people working on the front line of medical and nursing care.
Late week, the government announced a new procedure designed to help governors deal with a major outbreak within their jurisdictions when more than half of the hospital beds reserved for COVID-19 patients are occupied. The governors will be allowed to issue a special declaration to bolster local efforts to deal with a fresh wave of cases caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant known as BA.5. However, the declaration will not lead to any new policy measure, and the effectiveness of this step is in doubt.
One notable fact about this seventh wave is a rash of outbreaks among health care workers who routinely follow strict safety protocols to avoid infection. This is apparently due to the extremely transmissible subvariant of Omicron, now the dominant strain.
The health care system could face being overwhelmed, despite having many vacant beds available for COVID-19 patients, if large numbers of health care workers are forced to take leave due to infection.
The administration needs to pay serious attention to the voices of health care workers to quickly and accurately grasp what problems they are facing. It then needs to work with experts to analyze and assess the factors involved and make an effective policy response.
The government also should take steps to compensate for its insufficient explanation about this latest phase of the health crisis and send out clear, consistent and coherent policy messages. When the government decided in late July to shorten the period of self-isolation required for close contacts, the health ministry described the decision as a “response based on scientific grounds.” But some experts in infectious diseases said the government should admit it was a “political decision.”
The public is bound to find such confusing inconsistencies. Political leaders have a duty to offer meticulous explanations about policy changes and state clearly that they will take responsibility for the consequences.
The government has repeatedly said it has no plan to impose fresh COVID-19 curbs, citing the importance of maintaining acceptable levels of social and economic activities.
Some experts believe this led people to let down their guard, despite the higher risk of infections. According to patient accounts, some people became infected despite following the same safety protocols.
The government should propose more specific measures that each of us can take to avoid catching the virus and transmitting it to others.
On July 31, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the government will consider downgrading the legal status of COVID-19, which is categorized as a Type II infectious disease, to a lower category after the current wave wanes. The infectious disease prevention law requires counting and reporting all cases of Type II infectious diseases.
In April, a panel of experts advising the government on responses to the pandemic cited a list of policy challenges the government should tackle so as to be better prepared for a fresh wave of cases. The list includes whether to impose fresh restrictions and public health responses. Asahi Shimbun editorials urged the government to tackle these challenges well before the seventh surge arose. But the government did nothing and wasted precious time.
Now, the priority should be on developing effective plans to ease the burden on public health centers and medical institutions. This will free up human and other resources to treat serious cases and high-risk patients. Through such efforts, the government needs to save as many lives as possible.
–The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 2