As Japan starts to cast a wider net to prevent spread of the omicron COVID-19 variant, central and local governments are scrambling to ensure there are enough quarantine facilities for those who have come in close contact with people confirmed as infected with the highly transmissible virus.
On Tuesday, the government instructed all omicron close contacts to be quarantined at a facility monitored by central or local government officials for 14 days. Until now, close contacts had been allowed to quarantine in their homes.
“The health ministry notified prefectural governments today to start making preparations early on to make sure they can handle a rapid rise in infections,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno on Wednesday. “With this, we hope to have the necessary system in place.”
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday that Japan will continue to ban foreign visitors from entering the country “for the time being.” The policy — in place since late last month — was set to end on Dec. 31 but will now extend into the new year. Japan will also have all COVID-19 cases tested to confirm whether they involve the omicron variant, he said.
“We will reinforce measures to contain the infection,” Kishida told the news conference.
Despite the gradual rise in omicron cases being detected in Japan, Kishida stopped short of asking people to refrain from nonessential outings.
“Some experts overseas are urging people to refrain from going out if they have symptoms similar to a cold to prevent the spread of the omicron. In Japan, we are not seeing community infection, but please be sure to take precautions,” he said.
A day after Kishida’s presser, Japan reported the first case of community infection in Osaka, with three of the day’s four new omicron cases there involving people with no recent history of traveling abroad.
In the weeks since the first case of omicron was reported in the country, from a Namibian diplomat who flew to Japan in late November, the government has expanded its definition of close contacts on flights: from the two rows in front of and behind where the omicron-infected person was sitting, to all passengers on the flight. The change dramatically increased the number of people needing to be quarantined.
At present, there are about 16,000 rooms available nationwide at government-designated facilities for quarantine upon arrival, and as of early last week some 8,000 people had been staying in them, according to a health ministry official.
But with rooms at designated facilities near Narita Airport — Japan’s main gateway for international flights — quickly filling up, some have been flown to other cities where quarantine accommodation is available, including Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka and Miyagi prefectures, the official said.
“We need to ensure there are enough facilities as the number of people arriving in Japan increases,” the official said.
In order to deal with the possible spread of omicron, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced Wednesday that it will increase the number of rooms for close contacts to quarantine — from about 3,400 rooms to 4,760 in early January. They are also testing all who have been in close contact with people who tested positive for the new variant.
So far, there have been six cases of omicron detected in Tokyo and about 1,000 other people designated as close contacts of those with the new variant, the metropolitan government said.
In Chiba Prefecture, 1,843 rooms have been prepared for COVID-19 patients who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. Some of these rooms will now be used to quarantine close contacts, with 178 people staying there since Monday.
Even though the figures suggest Chiba still has ample rooms left, the facilities will need more medical staff to be fully operational, a Chiba Prefecture official said, adding that the prefecture has started making preparations.
As of Tuesday, about 210 people had been identified as close contacts of people infected with omicron in Chiba, but so far no citizens in the prefecture have tested positive for the new variant.
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