- Tokyo has revised its contact-tracing strategy to prioritize outreach to higher-risk individuals affected by coronavirus, according to a letter sent by the metropolitan government to public health authorities last week. The change comes as a third wave of the pandemic overwhelms Japan’s public health centers, which handle everything from tests and tracing to finding hospital beds.The scale back on contact tracing is an unfortunate but necessary step as understaffed health centers prepare for COVID-19 vaccinations next month, said Fumie Sakamoto, the infection control manager at St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo. “They have so much work to do right now,” Sakamoto said.”There’s always been a shortage of manpower.”
Despite its early success, experts have warned that the country’s strategy to trace clusters of cases rather than conduct mass tests could face limits as virus cases surge nationwide. Public health officials and doctors have lobbied for months for authorities to increase testing to ensure early detection and contain the spread of the virus.
Since infection cases began to rise in November, public health center officials have asked to further narrow their contact-tracing efforts due to staffing shortages. “Regarding epidemiological investigations, each public health center will focus on finding out places and groups that contain people with higher risks,” said the Tokyo metropolitan government’s letter dated 22 January seen by Reuters, referring to the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.
Asked about concerns over scaling back efforts to trace the contacts of every person, Naomi Seki, an official at Tokyo metropolitan government’s health bureau, told Reuters the new policy would help public health workers cope with the rising number of coronavirus cases.
Tokyo’s new daily infections increased to 1,026 on Tuesday, snapping a four-day decline. Neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture has also revised its contact-tracing policy to focus more on high-risk individuals.
- Administrative reform minister Taro Kono announced on 25 January that a system would be developed in Japan to link COVID-19 vaccination coupons and hospital vaccination information with the “My Number” individual social security and tax number system, to determine who has been vaccinated. The central government will cover the costs of the system and personnel expenses incurred by local governments related to inputting the data.Under the new system, data including the name of the medical facility giving the vaccination, the area where the person lives, the date and type of vaccination and the number of times the person has been vaccinated will be registered with each person’s My Number.
Not only will this allow the government to monitor the number of residents who have been vaccinated in real time, municipalities will also be able to check the state of vaccinations when people move or if they lose their coupons. It will also be possible to call on people individually to get their second vaccination.
“We want to get this up and running in time for vaccinations of the elderly,” Kono told reporters. Kono, who is in charge of coordinating vaccinations, stated that a vaccination simulation would begin in the city of Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, on 27 January. “We will first conduct a simulation to determine how much time it will actually take and what kind of arrangement is necessary,” he said.
Last Friday, Kono walked back on a goal to secure enough targeted supplies of COVID-19 vaccines by June, one month before the planned start of the Tokyo Olympics, telling reporters that “old information” was behind a spokesman’s comments on Thursday that the government expects to have enough vaccines for its targeted population by mid-year. “At the moment, we are making preparations to start vaccination in late February,” Kono said. “We would like to provide information on what will come after that as things firm up.”
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged to have enough shots for the Japanese populace by the middle of 2021. But production and distribution problems have hampered vaccine rollouts across the globe, and Japan already trails most major economies in starting its inoculation campaign.
Kono said Pfizer’s vaccine will be used for the first shots, starting with 10,000 medical workers at 100 hospitals. The next priority after medical workers was to vaccinate the elderly, those with health conditions and elderly care facility workers.
Japan has made deals to purchase 144 million doses, enough to inoculate 72 million people, from Pfizer. It has also secured 50 million doses from Moderna Inc and 120 million from AstraZeneca Plc. Altogether, that would be more than enough for Japan’s population of 126 million. They require domestic trials for vaccines before granting regulatory approval. Pfizer’s is expected to be approved next month, while Moderna started its first domestic trial on Thursday. AstraZeneca has done a trial in Japan but has not yet filed for approval.
- Medical workers who will provide healthcare for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are facing possible delays in their preparations while the coronavirus state of emergency remains in effect in 11 prefectures. University hospitals and doctors’ associations are tasked with providing on-site medical care for spectators and athletes during the Games.The Tokyo Organising Committee had been scheduled to brief senior medical staff about the status of the preparations this month. But the meeting has been postponed until mid-February. Sources say that medical workers will be given special training online, but no arrangements have been made so far.
Healthcare workers are voicing concerns about the limited time left for preparations and securing the required number of staff as medical institutions across Japan are busy with coronavirus patients. The committee says it is trying to address their concerns by providing information and by considering financial support to make it easier for medical institutions to send staff.
Committee member Yamashita Satoshi says that in order for the Games to take place, infections will need to be curbed to a certain level and the stable provision of medical care must be secured. He says he will seriously consider the opinions of the medical community and prepare as much as possible.
- Airlines that were hoping to turn the corner this year after a rough 2020 may be in for a rude awakening. Major Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways is planning to slash international flights during the summer by 50%. The company will apply the reduction from 28 March through 30 October.ANA will halt flights on 16 international routes, including from Narita to New York, and put the brakes on starting service from Haneda Airport to Istanbul and Stockholm. Pilots will fly smaller planes on the international routes it is keeping to reduce total seating by half. The airline has already suspended or cut international flights by about 80%. ANA could make further reductions if the pandemic continues to restrict travel.
As a little light in the middle of the negative developments, Japanese airlines have found success in the sale of in-flight meals for those who cannot fly abroad but want to savor them amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
ANA has sold its meals online three times since last December so people can enjoy them at home. All of its meals sold out within a few days, and the airline plans to add a new dish to the menu from 26 January. Japan Airlines Co. (JAL), meanwhile, has been serving in-flight meals at a restaurant near Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, and also started selling the fare abroad in January for the first time.
Meanwhile, in-flight meal manufacturer Gate Gourmet Japan Ltd., based in Narita, began selling Western, Chinese and Thai food online in December 2020. A chef who supervises and cooks in-flight meals for first-class customers on international flights was involved in developing the items. As the precooked meals are vacuum packed, purchasers can easily enjoy genuine airline course meals by boiling the packs.
- A Japanese court upheld a ban on dual citizenship on Thursday, rejecting a suit that challenged the measure’s constitutionality and sought damages for those affected. Japan is one of around 50 countries internationally, including China and South Korea, that only permits its citizens to hold one nationality.Under current rules, Japanese people who acquire another passport are asked to relinquish their Japanese citizenship, but in 2018 eight plaintiffs started legal proceedings, arguing the rule was unconstitutional. One of them, Hitoshi Nogawa, has told reporters that being forced to give up his nationality was a “painful experience.”
“I obtained Swiss nationality because my job requires it, but I’m emotionally attached to Japan and this is the foundation of my identity,” the Asahi Shimbun newspaper quoted him as saying.
The plaintiffs are six men who have already obtained Swiss or Liechtenstein citizenship, and two Japanese men who want to obtain foreign citizenship without losing their Japanese passports, local media said. They argued that the rule was a violation of the constitution’s right to pursue happiness and protection of equality under the law.
But on Thursday, the Tokyo District Court rejected their suit and request for damages, a spokesman said, upholding the constitutionality of the rule. The government argued there was no national interest in permitting multiple citizenships, Kyodo news agency reported.
- This year in March, Japan’s Defense Ministry will hold its first contest in which participants compete to show their understanding of cybersecurity and ability to put their skills to work, as the government searches for talent to strengthen the country’s digital defenses.The event will take place online on 14 March, with up to 200 Japanese nationals expected to compete to show their skill and abilities in areas such as computer security system vulnerabilities and information analysis, a ministry official said. The contest comes at a time when countries such as China and Russia are bolstering and deploying their military’s offensive cyber capabilities.
“The threat of cyberattacks has been increasing and becoming more sophisticated by the day, and it is our pressing task to improve our capabilities,” Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said.
Kishi expressed hope the contest, for which the ministry accepts entries since Monday 25 January up until 12 February, will help the ministry discover recruits of the highest order. The names or pseudonyms of the top-five finishers will be released on the ministry’s website.
In its annual white paper released last year, the ministry said “cyberattacks are recognized as an asymmetrical means to impede the military activities of adversaries at low cost.” It also warned bad actors could “seriously impact the lives of individuals” through the destruction of critical infrastructure including power systems.