Photo/Illutration Officials from the public health center in Tokyo’s Minato Ward answer calls from COVID-19 patients recuperating at home on Aug. 15, 2021. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

“Noko sesshokusha” is the Japanese term for an individual who has been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.

Some people must have raised their eyebrows when they first heard this expression, as the adjective “noko” is seldom used in daily Japanese. About the only example I can think of immediately is “noko gyunyu,” which means “rich milk” with a high fat content.

But I imagine we’ve all become used to this term. Not a day goes by that we don’t see or hear it.

I also believe almost everyone is now familiar with the official definition of noko sesshokusha as “an unmasked person who was less than 1 meter from an infected person for more than 15 minutes.”

Studies by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and other organizations indicate that there are five close contacts for every person who has tested positive, possibly members of their family or friends they shared a meal with.

By simple arithmetic, the number of close contacts should reach around 2 million if the present nationwide rate of 40,000 new cases is sustained for 10 days.

Even though the government-designated self-quarantine period has been reduced from 14 days to 10, that’s still hardly short.

Keeping track of close contacts, which is the job of “hokenjo” public health centers, requires a lot of work.

Naomi Seki, a front-line doctor who has dealt with COVID-19 patients in Tokyo, notes in her book “Hokenjo no ‘Korona Senki’” (Hokenjo’s ‘account of the war against the coronavirus’) that it can take up to one hour to thoroughly interview an infected person about their recent movements and the people with whom they have been in contact.

During the fifth wave of the pandemic last summer, it was apparently becoming difficult for the health center where Seki worked to interview every patient.

And now that the Omicron variant has brought a sixth wave with more patients than the last wave, health centers are having trouble staying on top of everything and will probably have to resort to asking the infected people to get in touch with anyone who could have been a close contact.

We all need to use our imaginations and act with greater caution now, reminding ourselves, “Should I become infected, I could affect the work and activities of people around me.”

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 21

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.