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EDITORIAL | In Possible 7th COVID-19 Wave, Japan Must Protect the Elderly

Effective measures targeting the elderly would remove the necessity of imposing severe restraints on the freedom of society as a whole.



Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno at the office transfer ceremony with Noriko Horiuchi (left), who resigned from the minister in charge of vaccination promotion. Prime Minister's Office, April 1, 2022 (photo by Yasuhiro Yajima)

Japan is seeing another nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases.

The latest seven-day average is higher than the peak in the summer of 2021. New cases exceeded that of the previous week in 37 of the 47 prefectures of Japan. 

Stronger vigilance is needed to prevent this increase from escalating into what could be Japan’s seventh wave of infections.

Cherry Blossom viewing in Meguro, Tokyo.

Many of these cases are young adults in their 20s who were exposed to the virus at restaurants and other places of socialization. The BA.1 subvariant of the Omicron coronavirus variant, which triggered the sixth wave of infections in Japan, is being taken over by the even more infectious BA.2 subvariant. Dr. Takaji Wakita, chairman of the advisory board to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, has called for vigilance. 

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The rebound in cases must be suppressed while balancing between implementing preventative measures and protecting our ability to carry on our daily lives.

The third dose of COVID-19 vaccines is expected to prevent severe illness and hospitalization. In Japan, the vaccination rate exceeds 80% among the elderly, but is only about 40% overall. To improve these numbers, the government and municipalities need to provide detailed explanations of the vaccines.

At the end of March, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida decided to have vaccination minister Noriko Horiuchi step down from her position to comply with the maximum number of Cabinet ministers allowed by law, except when a special need arises. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno has been appointed as her successor, which means he will take on the new role concurrently with his current roles.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccination at a Self-Defense Forces site on January 31, 2022 (Otemach, Tokyo) (Pool photo)

Preparing for the Next Battle

As some countries roll out fourth vaccine doses, there is concern that the Chief Cabinet Secretary — with hands already full from his current responsibilities — is taking on more than he can handle. 

The government must increase the rate of third-dose vaccinations, while also explaining the effectiveness of additional booster shots to the public in a manner that is easy to understand. 

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Severe cases from the Omicron strain are relatively rare among the working-age population. But day-to-day measures against infection must be implemented stringently ー not only to protect the elderly from infection, but also to resume normalcy in our daily lives. 

Preventing hospital bed shortages is of utmost importance. Severe cases of COVID-19 among elderly patients were especially conspicuous during the sixth wave of infections. Although the third-dose vaccination rate among the elderly has improved, the necessary environment must be secured for their recuperation from COVID-19 if they do contract it. 

Prolonged hospitalization of elderly patients, even at a large hospital specializing in the treatment of infectious diseases, could lead to the deterioration of their physical and cognitive functions even after the infection is cured. That makes it difficult for them to return to normal life. 

One option is to divert beds in small- and medium-sized hospitals offering rehabilitation and nursing care. The beds could be assigned to the recuperation of elderly COVID-19 patients. Making rehabilitation and nursing care available in large COVID-19 recuperation facilities would also be effective.

Effective measures targeting the elderly would remove the necessity of imposing severe restraints on the freedom of society as a whole. Moreover, they would alleviate the strain on emergency medical services for non-COVID-19 patients by preventing critical care beds in large hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with elderly patients undergoing prolonged hospitalization.

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(Read the editorial in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun


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