Photo/Illutration Health minister Shigeyuki Goto explains a new COVID-19 policy in Tokyo on Jan. 24. (Kayoko Geji)

The health ministry changed its COVID-19 policy and said Jan. 24 that young people with mild symptoms do not need to consult with doctors and can just recuperate at home.

The new policy is aimed at ensuring that outpatient care services are not overwhelmed by a surge in novel coronavirus infections.

The ministry said that people under 40 can test themselves for the virus and avoid clogging up hospitals because they are at a lower risk of developing severe symptoms.

In some municipalities, the number of outpatients has been soaring, leading to long lines for tests conducted by doctors.

Health experts advising the government on anti-virus measures on Jan. 21 recommended a change in policy to ease pressure on medical care systems.

“Young generations who are at a lower risk do not always need to go to see doctors and should be allowed to recuperate at home,” the proposal said.

Local governments can decide on their own on whether to adopt the new policy, depending on the infection situation in their jurisdictions.

The ministry defined two stages for its new policy.

The first stage, before the medical services become strained, is when “people with fevers must wait for a certain period of time before they can see a doctor.”

The ministry said that in this stage, people at low risk of developing severe symptoms, such as fully vaccinated people under 40 with no underlying illnesses, should take antigen or other tests by themselves before they visit doctors. But they can see doctors before such tests if they wish.

Medical institutions should also offer additional remote services via telephone or online for patients with fevers, the ministry said.

If people develop symptoms after coming in close contact with an infected family member in the same house, doctors can make a COVID-19 diagnosis by checking only those symptoms without the need for a test.

The second stage, when infections spread further, is defined as “when outpatient services are believed to be strained.”

In this stage, people with mild symptoms and at lower risk of developing serious symptoms do not need to visit doctors. Instead, they can inform local government-run health centers of their test results and be monitored while recuperating at home.

Okinawa and Kanagawa prefectures are considering introducing such a system, a health ministry official said.

The ministry is also asking local governments to distribute test kits to infected patients.

Health minister Shigeyuki Goto said at a Jan. 24 news conference that “people can go see doctors” even during the second stage. He said the ministry is just giving more options for when the medical care system may be overwhelmed.