Japan is set to more than double the number of regions under enhanced coronavirus curbs on Tuesday, even as it sought to modify strategies to contend with the infectious Omicron variant that has fueled record numbers of cases.
A government health panel signed off on an expansion of tougher counter-measures in 18 additional regions, among them the western prefectures of Osaka and Kyoto.
The measures came in response to an increase of infections and hospital admissions driven by Omicron. Japan logged more than 44,000 new cases on Monday, a tally by public broadcaster NHK showed.
The curbs will run from Thursday until Feb. 20, empowering regional governors to ask restaurants and bars to shorten business hours and stop serving alcohol.
Already declared in 16 prefectures, the expansion means the measures will soon cover more than 70% of Japan's regions until the middle of next month.
The advisory panel also approved an extension until Feb. 20 of so-called quasi-emergency measures in three regions.
A government taskforce led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is set to formally approve the decisions later on Tuesday.
The health ministry announced late on Monday it will allow doctors to diagnose those who have had a close contact with a COVID patient and who show COVID symptoms as being infected without testing if deemed necessary by local governments.
The new policy will enable patients to get prompt tests and treatment at the direction of the community depending on the infection situation there, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno on Tuesday.
"We're presenting a policy to expand the options available to patients, such as combining tests before visiting medical institutions," he said.
Those at high risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 should see a doctor even under the new policy, he said.
Managing COVID-19 without a laboratory test confirmation is similar to how doctors fight influenza in areas where “the community burden is high”, said Kazuaki Jindai, a physician and researcher at Tohoku University.
“The important thing is that some people will get sick eventually and we need to have a good monitoring system to make sure that they are safe. Not only by providing them hospitalization but also access to new oral medications.”
The government would also weigh scientific data in considering shorter quarantines for people who have had close contact with COVID-19 patients, Kishida told a parliamentary debate.
(Reporting by Satoshi Sugiyama; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel) ((Satoshi.Sugiyama@thomsonreuters.com;))