Japan eyes shortened isolation period for close Omicron contacts

The Japanese government is considering shortening the current 14-day isolation period for those who have been identified as a close contact of a person infected with the Omicron COVID-19 variant, officials said Thursday.
The envisioned policy change, aimed at minimizing social disruption and preventing a strain on the medical system, comes as research suggests that Omicron has a shorter incubation period compared with other variants of the virus.
"We have to devise ways to maintain social functions," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in Tokyo. "We'd like to consider responding flexibly as needed."
The National Institute for Infectious Diseases has said a study of people infected with the Omicron variant in Okinawa Prefecture shows that the incubation period was around three days compared with about five for the other variants.
Japan is facing a resurgence of coronavirus cases with the spread of the Omicron variant.
The health ministry says a person is a close contact if they have interacted with an infected person at a short distance or for a long period of time, thus facing a relatively high risk of infection.
The current policy requires people identified as close contacts to isolate themselves for 14 days at home or designated facilities, but some experts have been calling for the period to be shortened to around 10 days.
The Omicron variant, known as a highly transmissible strain, has been added to the list of coronavirus "variants of concern" by the World Health Organization, as it has the potential to evade immunity provided by vaccines.
But it is also said the risk of developing severe symptoms from Omicron is likely to be lower than that for other variants. In the United States and Europe where Omicron has spread rapidly, isolation periods have been shortened recently.
On Wednesday, the health ministry notified local governments that doctors and nurses who have had close contact with people infected with COVID, including the Omicron variant, will be able to continue working if they test negative each day.
In the southern island prefecture of Okinawa, which has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, medical services are affected by a staff shortage as many of their employees have been forced to miss work after coming into close contact with those who have contracted the virus.
According to the government, about 16,000 medical facilities nationwide are involved in monitoring the health conditions of infected people recuperating at home, up 30 percent from late November last year.
Also on Thursday, economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa requested leaders of Japan's major business groups to promote teleworking so companies can continue operations even if workers are infected with the virus.
"Teleworking is an effective means to continue operations. I want each entity to think out what plans can be utilized," Yamagiwa told the leaders in an online meeting.
Masakazu Tokura, the head of Japan's powerful business lobby Keidanren, said he would accept the request and called for shortening the isolation period for people who had close contact with the infected.
"There should be a system where people can swiftly return to society after they test negative," Tokura said.

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