Japan struggles with contact tracing as coronavirus infections grow

The Sapporo Snow Festival has been pinpointed as among a growing cluster of coronavirus infections across Japan, where 26 new cases yesterday brought the nation’s total to 135.

In many of the cases, the authorities are struggling with contact tracing as the number of domestic infections soars. Separately, Japan’s decision to release close to 1,000 passengers on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship after their two-week quarantine ended last Wednesday is being severely tested.

Unlike other governments which have chartered flights to bring their citizens home, Japan insists that there is no need for another compulsory quarantine and instead has called on the passengers to practise “voluntary home isolation”.

There are 634 confirmed cases on the cruise ship – a figure that does not include the 18 Americans, six Australians and one Israeli who were given a clean bill of health to go home, only to test positive for the coronavirus later.

Domestically, Tochigi prefecture also recorded its first case yesterday – a former passenger on board the Diamond Princess.

These developments have raised questions about the reliability of Japan’s testing. And amid scrutiny that the quarantine may have failed, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato apologised for what he described as a “mistake” after 23 passengers were released without being tested during isolation.

Concerns have also emerged about the ability of the nation’s healthcare system to cope with the growing outbreak. The Health Ministry issued an advisory last week for people to stay home if they develop symptoms and to see a doctor only if they have a fever of at least 37.5 deg C for four days or more and have breathing difficulties or lethargy.

But Dr Hitoshi Oshitani of Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine, who sits on a government panel, has noted Japan’s limited testing capability – which means that not everybody can be screened.

There already have been several misdiagnoses, including a junior high school teacher in Chiba who was told that she had the common cold on Feb 12 and went back to work until Feb 19. She tested positive for the coronavirus, and the school is being closed until Feb 26.

In another case, a Tokyo man in his 60s, who works at an old-age home, first saw a doctor for a cough on Feb 12. He was prescribed medicine and sent home.

He went to work the next day, and then visited Indonesia with his family for a holiday from Feb 15 to 19.

He has been warded in intensive care with breathing difficulties after testing positive for the virus.

Indonesia has reported no cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Japan’s efforts at contact tracing have linked several cases to the Sapporo Snow Festival at Odori Park from Feb 4 to Feb 11 that drew two million visitors.

It has been linked to a municipal assembly member and two young boys among several others in Hokkaido, as well as a man in southwestern Kumamoto and a woman in Chiba.

Other cases were linked to a yakatabune boat on the Sumida River in Tokyo, where a taxi association held a party on Jan 18.

A waiter on the boat who had served passengers from Wuhan passed the virus on to at least 10 others at the party, including a taxi driver in his 70s who spread the bug to his mother-in-law. She is Japan’s first coronavirus death.

Related Stories: