Photo/Illutration Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward uses a former school campus as a sub-site of its public health center to deal with the current surge of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. Dispatched ward employees are seen working in a former classroom on Jan. 20. (Naoko Kobayashi)

Public health centers are scrambling desperately to cope with the surging Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus by working to increase their capacity and employing makeshift staffing.

The Tokyo metropolitan government is enlisting help from doctors such as Kazuhiro Miura, 45, who runs a private clinic in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward. 

Miura was making phone calls to COVID-19 patients on a recent day in mid-January, on a work day that started at 9 a.m. and lasted until 10 p.m. that evening.

The ward was logging more than 300 new infection cases per day at the time.

Miura called patients at their homes twice a day, morning and evening, if they were elderly or experiencing tightness in the chest.

A call to a patient with mild symptoms still required at least about five minutes because he needed to ask about their condition and report it.

“It is difficult for me to do more,” Miura said. “But I have to bite the bullet and do it.”

Private practice doctors in the capital started calling patients recuperating at home from COVID-19 from Jan. 12. 

In Shinagawa Ward, about 60 health care organizations have carried out the arduous task.

But the ward’s public health center has increasingly become overwhelmed.

The center was unable to make the first call to patients until two days after the initial report or even later.

The ward changed the system and started contacting the patients in their 20s and 30s through a text message.

As of Jan. 19, 98 personnel were working at the public center, including 45 staff who have been dispatched from elsewhere.

But the center soon faced a manpower shortage.

In Edogawa Ward, officials on Jan. 17 started using a former school as a suboffice of the public health center.

As of Jan. 24, about 200 staff were working at the site, calling at-home patients to check on their condition.

Most of the staff are employees who belong to departments that handle child care services and civil engineering.

The main office of the ward’s public health center has handled patients who are at risk of developing severe symptoms.

The suboffice handles patients who are less likely to develop severe symptoms.

The staff pulled into the subsite to help out are working under the aegis of the public health center, calling at-home patients to check on their health and inputting the collected data into a system.

In the city of Saitama, 40 employees of the city government have joined the public health center’s efforts since Jan. 18.

During the fifth wave of infections last summer, the city’s public health center was overwhelmed and took three days to make the first contact with a newly infected patient.

“We have learned a lesson and were able to make an arrangement to increase staff ahead of time this time,” a city official said.

But the official feels a sense of crisis because “the speed of the virus spread is much faster,” forcing staff to take longer to contact newly infected patients.

The city is expected to dispatch 30 more city employees to help with the work starting from Jan. 25.

Toshio Takatorige, a public health professor at Kansai University, said the period from a patient contracting the Omicron variant of the virus to showing symptoms is believed to be about two to three days. 

"So the effectiveness of epidemiological study--the role that public health centers have played up to this point to confirm the infectant's recent history and identify close contacts--is small," he said.

Instead, he said public health centers should monitor the health of at-home patients and respond in cases where their health suddenly changes to save their lives. 

"Strengthening close cooperation with health care organizations is needed even more,” Takatorige said.

(This article was written by Yuka Honda and Naoko Kobayashi.)