Photo/Illutration Shigeru Omi, who heads the government’s expert panel on the COVID-19 pandemic, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 23. (Reina Kitamura)

COVID-19 experts are recommending that the government drop its current policy of automatically hospitalizing all Omicron patients, saying medical facilities may be short-staffed during the year-end and New Year holidays.

They also said quarantine rules should be eased for people who have come in close contact with individuals infected with the Omicron variant to prevent an overloading of designated accommodation facilities.

Seventeen experts—including Shigeru Omi, who leads the government’s expert panel on the COVID-19 pandemic, and Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases—submitted their recommendations to health minister Shigeyuki Goto and Daishiro Yamagiwa, the state minister in charge of economic revitalization, on Dec. 28.

They said hospitalizations of Omicron patients should be based on the severity of their symptoms, which is the measure taken for other variants of the novel coronavirus.

Wakita said at a news conference that the main purpose of the automatic hospitalization policy “is not treatment but isolation.”

“Local health care resources should be distributed properly,” he said.

The experts also called for a change in the policy of asking all people who were near a person carrying the Omicron variant to isolate themselves at designated accommodation facilities.

They said such close-contact people should be allowed to stay at home depending on the availability of the secured facilities.

In addition, the experts urged the government to allow Omicron patients to share hospital rooms with Delta variant patients, instead of separating them in private single-patient rooms.

Under the current policy, Omicron patients are required to take two polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and test negative before they can be released from hospitals.

But the experts said the government should make it possible for such patients to be released 10 days after the start of symptoms.

As of Dec. 27, 316 Omicron infections had been confirmed nationwide. Community transmissions of the variant have also been reported in an increasing number of prefectures.

Health care institutions have called for an easing of the strict policies against the Omicron variant, saying patients with mild symptoms could end up filling all hospital beds.

Local governments have also sought an easing of the rules concerning international travelers. Local authorities are tasked with contacting people who have come in “close contact” with a passenger on the same flight who was infected with the Omicron strain, as well as securing accommodation facilities for them.

So far, a total of 10,000 passengers have been deemed in close contact.

The local governments said they cannot handle the increasing burden.

The health ministry, starting on Dec. 28, narrowed its definition of “close contact.” Instead of covering all people on the same flight as an infected passenger, the definition now refers to people seated in the two rows in front of and behind the virus-carrying traveler.