Photo/Illutration Staff at the Tokyo metropolitan government’s telephone consultation center offer information about where people can be tested or treated for COVID-19. Photo was taken on Dec. 25. (Chiaki Ogihara)

Fears that calls to hotlines for people who suspect they have the novel coronavirus might go unanswered during the year-end and New Year holidays have prompted the health ministry to consider bolstering the services.

Hospitals operate with far fewer staff than usual during the holiday period and may be further sapped by treating a rising number of COVID-19 cases.

The ministry asked phone consultation services that offer information about where people can get tested or treated for COVID-19 to remain operating around the clock during the holiday season in a directive sent to prefectural governments dated Dec. 2.

The governments are also encouraged to consider increasing the number of staff and telephone lines to boost the phone services' capacity if necessary. 

In areas experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, patients with mild or no symptoms whom doctors deem don't require hospitalization will be asked to recuperate at accommodation facilities or at home to prevent hospital beds from filling up.

The ministry is also urging private testing labs that test samples sent by medical institutions to continue providing the service throughout the holiday period.

People with symptoms such as a fever or cough should check which medical services are available to them on their local prefectural medical association’s website as services may vary among prefectural governments and municipalities. 

Patients with those symptoms are normally advised to first call their family doctors.

If the patients do not have family doctors or if their clinics are closed for the day, they can call phone consultation centers set up by local governments.

The centers will then give patients phone numbers of medical institutions that are open in their neighborhoods so that they can call them prior to visiting in person.

A list of each prefecture's phone consultation service information on the novel coronavirus is also being posted on the ministry's website.

(This article was written by Ayako Tsukidate and Naoyuki Himeno.)