Photo/Illutration Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, far right, attends a Jan. 5 meeting of the prefectural government’s expert panel on the novel coronavirus to discuss asking the central government to apply COVID-19 pre-emergency measures to the prefecture. (Shogo Mitsuzumi)

While comparing symptoms of the Omicron variant to the flu, an Okinawa Prefecture expert panel is worried that the long isolation period required for infected patients could severely strain the prefecture's health care system.

The panel, headed by Jiro Fujita, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus, met on Jan. 5 to report on the infection situation in the prefecture, as the highly contagious Omicron variant is driving up COVID-19 cases to record daily highs. 

Fujita said he has yet to grasp the entire picture of the variant due to a lack of cases, but noted that Omicron seems “different” from the Delta variant and is more like the flu, judging from the symptoms of patients at his university-affiliated hospital.

However, Fujita, who treated more than 10 Omicron patients at the hospital, said he is bracing for possible serious cases to occur among future patients.

He raised concerns as many Omicron patients are expected to self-isolate for a prolonged period as required under the central government’s current policy.

“The central government drew up its criteria (on dealing with COVID-19) based on cases of the Delta variant, but (the Omicron variant) seems different from the standpoint of a clinician,” Fujita said.

“Those who contract the flu can return to work in just several days after their fever subsides. But COVID-19 patients are required to self-isolate for a much longer period, more severely impacting the social infrastructure.”

Infections from the Omicron variant are rapidly replacing those from the Delta variant in Okinawa Prefecture, accounting for more than 90 percent of new COVID-19 cases there as of the end of December, according to a prefectural government report.

Forty-eight of the 50 Omicron patients whose detailed data was collected over the month through Jan. 1 showed symptoms. Of these, 36 had a fever, followed by 29 with a cough, 25 complaining of general fatigue and 22 experiencing a sore throat.

Only one patient reported an impaired sense of taste and smell, which is thought to be a common symptom of COVID-19. None of the infected individuals were seriously ill, and 66 percent of the patients had received two shots of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Unlike patients who contracted other variants of the virus, none of those infected with Omicron have developed pneumonia so far, doctors who treated Omicron patients said at the panel meeting.

The panel also reported on a growing number of health care workers missing work at hospitals designated to treat COVID-19 patients.

Those employees were forced to stay away from their workplaces because they, or in some cases their children, contracted the Omicron variant.

Many panel members voiced concerns that a rise in absences from work could hamper the operations of medical institutions and social infrastructure providers. One member said 40 percent of employees could miss work at a peak of Omicron infections.

The central government refers to the occupancy rate of hospital beds and other indicators when deciding whether to issue a COVID-19 state of emergency or apply pre-emergency measures.

But panel members pointed out that those indicators may not accurately reflect the actual impact of the spread of Omicron.

Some raised concerns that relying on the indicators could lead to a delay in containing the spread of the variant because hospitals may become unable to secure enough beds amid the absences of health care workers from work.