EDITORIAL: A policy shift to protect the elderly is now a key COVID-19 issue

New cases of COVID-19 appear to be rising again after a brief lull. To tackle the latest resurgence, the government must tackle the issues that surfaced during the “sixth wave” that began sweeping the country earlier this year.

The protection of elderly people in poor health remains a vital issue. Although the Omicron variant, which drove the sixth wave, is more transmissible than previous strains, it is less likely to cause serious health complications. This strain has spawned cluster infections in many facilities for the elderly, primarily nursing homes. As the even more contagious Omicron sub-variant BA.2 rapidly becomes dominant, the government has no time to waste in taking effective action to protect the elderly.

Earlier this week, the Ministry of Health asked local governments to adopt specific measures to deal with this challenge. They include setting up a system to send medical support teams to facilities for the elderly within 24 hours of confirming a new case of COVID-19 and reviewing all such facilities to determine if residents are able to receive appropriate medical treatment through physician visits.

Only a small portion of aged care facilities are legally required to have doctors or other healthcare workers on hand at all times. During the sixth wave, numerous cases emerged in Tokyo and Osaka in which infected residents of facilities found themselves without access to medical examination and treatment because they could not be admitted to hospitals.

Learning from these experiences, the government changed direction by improving the level of health care in institutions instead of trying to transfer infected patients to hospitals.

This is a reasonable approach as there have been reports of changes in living conditions caused by hospitalization that have made patients worse. In providing medical care to these elderly patients, it is also important to think carefully about how to maintain their quality of life by treating them in institutions rather than hospitals.

However, those requiring immediate hospitalization should be promptly transferred.

A mountain of problems must be solved.

The primary goal of policy support for facilities for the aged should be to prevent the spread of infections among residents and staff. This requires providing timely and appropriate guidance and advice in response to the prevailing situation, providing materials and training staff members. All of this requires strong financial support.

However, getting institutions for the elderly and medical institutions to cooperate more closely is not as simple as it seems.

A survey of Osaka Prefecture, which has seen an exceptionally high number of deaths among elderly COVID-19 patients, found that most of the prefecture’s more than 3,600 senior care facilities maintain cooperative agreements. with specific medical institutions. But only 30% of those facilities are able to get prescriptions for COVID-19 drugs.

In its efforts to strengthen cooperative ties, prefectural authorities are seeking to expand a system to quickly dispatch medical teams to facilities. Some local governments are making similar efforts. To improve this approach, municipal and prefectural authorities should share their knowledge and expertise on the challenges to be faced and possible solutions.

Ensuring effective cooperation between nursing and medical institutions was a delicate issue in health policy even before the pandemic hit.

Each elderly patient has unique health care needs. It is crucial to provide detailed information and explanations to patients and their families and also to create effective working relationships between local governments, medical institutions and facilities in such cases.

All of these challenges need to be addressed effectively to improve the country’s ability to deal with the pandemic, which is now in its third year.

–Asahi Shimbun, April 8