Shorter Covid-19 quarantine eyed for close contacts in Japan

The move is partly based on concerns that it will be difficult to provide medical services if doctors and nurses are identified as close contacts.

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida enters the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on Thursday. The Yomiuri Shimbun

January 13, 2022

TOKYO – The government is considering shortening the 14-day quarantine period for people who were in close contact with people infected with the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, as the incubation period for omicron may be shorter than that of conventional variants, according to sources.

The move is partly based on concerns that it will be difficult to provide medical services if more doctors and nurses are identified as close contacts.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday indicated a positive stance toward shortening the period, telling reporters in Tokyo, “I want to consider taking action as needed.”

“It has also been pointed out that measures must be devised to prevent difficulties in maintaining the functions of society, such as medical and nursing care services,” Kishida said.

Kishida met with Komeito Secretary General Keiichi Ishii and others at the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday, where they asked him to shorten the quarantine period for close contacts. Referring to the possibility that omicron has a shorter incubation period, Kishida said, “We need to take measures that are suited to the characteristics of the omicron variant, so as not to strain medical services.”

Under a rule set by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, those who had close contact with infected people are required to stay at home or in accommodation facilities for 14 days after their last contact with those persons. However, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, the incubation period for those who were confirmed to have contracted the omicron variant in Okinawa Prefecture was about three days.

Members of the ministry’s advisory body were expected to propose Thursday that the quarantine period could be shortened to about 10 days. In Britain, the voluntary quarantine period for people who had close contact with the infected is 10 days in principle, but England, which makes up a substantial percentage of the country’s total population, shortened the period to seven days in December last year.

The German government announced on Jan. 7 that it would cut the period to 10 days in principle.

At 20 priority medical institutions in Okinawa Prefecture, 180 health care workers were confirmed to have contracted the virus as of Wednesday, forcing 448 people to be away from their work for reasons including close contact with infected persons. Due to a shortage of staff, Naha City Hospital has suspended its general outpatient services.

If the number of infected people and close contacts increases rapidly among employees of public transportation, food stores and other entities that are essential to maintain the functions of society, it could disrupt the operation of businesses.

As an exceptional measure, health care workers have been allowed to come to work even if they had close contact with infected people, on such conditions as testing negative for the virus on a daily basis. By encouraging medical institutions to utilize such exceptions, the health ministry wants to avert a strain on medical services. The government is also considering expanding the exception to other sectors.

Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima said at an online meeting of the National Governors’ Association on Wednesday that the prefecture is considering asking the central government to apply priority measures, which will enable emergency-level measures in the prefecture.

Ehime Prefecture is also coordinating with the central government, as it intends to seek such measures if the infection situation worsens.

■ Cases soar to 10,000 in 8 days

With the spread of the omicron variant, Japan has seen the number of new coronavirus cases soar at an unprecedented pace. In the fifth wave of infections last summer, it took 37 days for the daily figure for new cases to go from the 1,000 range to more than 10,000. However, in the current sixth wave, in which the omicron variant has been dominant, cases soared to the 10,000 mark in only eight days.

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