Photo/Illutration Incoming travelers queue to take tests at the quarantine section at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 30. (Tatsuya Shimada)

All arrivals to Japan are now considered in “close contact” with the Omicron variant even before tests confirm if an infected passenger on the same flight is carrying that strain, the health ministry said.

These incoming passengers will be asked to quarantine at accommodations designated by local authorities before genome sequencing, which takes four to five days, determines if the fellow passenger is in fact infected with the Omicron variant, the ministry said.

The measure is aimed at preventing possible community infections of Omicron in Japan during the testing period.

Arriving passengers who test positive for COVID-19 at airports have to wait until the genome sequencing tests are completed to find out if they are infected with the Omicron variant.

Previously, passengers on the same flights as the infected individuals could stay at their homes after arrival. They were notified that they were in close contact with an Omicron patient after that variant was confirmed through genome sequencing.

However, a man in his 40s from Gifu Prefecture on Dec. 11 became Japan’s 13th Omicron infection case. He had self-isolated at his home until someone aboard the same plane that he took was confirmed infected with the Omicron variant.

The Gifu man was already showing COVID-19 symptoms when he was notified on his fifth day in Japan that he had come in close contact with an Omicron patient.

To close that window of opportunity for Omicron to spread in Japan, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare issued a notification to local authorities on Dec. 13.

It said if an incoming traveler tests positive for COVID-19 but negative for the Delta variant in a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, local authorities should treat all passengers on the same airplane as having come in close contact with an Omicron patient.

Local authorities are responsible for asking the close contact passengers to remain isolated at designated accommodations, but they lack the statutory power to enforce the new rule.

“We will consider whether to introduce a new statutory measure to force (those passengers) to stay in accommodations,” health minister Shigeyuki Goto told a news conference on Dec. 14 after a Cabinet meeting.

The move is the latest in a series of government moves to prevent the Omicron variant from spreading in Japan.

Entry restrictions on foreign travelers and re-entry bans for foreign residents have been reintroduced.

The ministry also changed its definition of people in “close contact” with the novel coronavirus.

Previously, the term applied to passengers within certain rows of an infected individual. Now, it applies to all passengers on the same flight as someone who tests positive.