Photo/Illutration Free antigen test kits are distributed to residents in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward on Jan. 27. (Hiroyuki Yamamoto)

Twenty prefectures are giving “deemed positive” diagnoses to potential COVID-19 patients without actually conducting tests to confirm if they are infected, The Asahi Shimbun has learned.

The health ministry allows them to do this because tests kits are in low supply and health centers could become overwhelmed with people seeking tests amid the latest surge in infection numbers around the country.

Those deemed positive are included in the number of new infection cases released to the public.

The 20 prefectures are: Hokkaido, Aomori, Akita, Yamagata, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Chiba, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Niigata, Shizuoka, Kyoto, Osaka, Okayama, Kochi, Fukuoka, Saga and Nagasaki.

The health ministry on Jan. 24 notified local governments that they can assume certain people are infected without conducting COVID-19 tests, including those who develop high fevers or other symptoms after coming in close contact with an infected family member in the same house.

Doctors can also give a deemed positive diagnosis to people other than family members.

Ibaraki Governor Kazuhiko Oigawa said on Feb. 3 that the prefectural government decided to implement the system because forcing people to wait for COVID-19 tests means they will be left unattended without knowing if they are infected.

“It is better to treat them as ‘positive,’” he said.

The Kanagawa prefectural government has defined three cases in which doctors can give a deemed positive diagnosis: If a person brings a positive result certificate from a free testing facility to a health care organization; if a person brings proof of a positive result from a commercially available antigen test kit to a health care organization; and if the person lives with a family member who has COVID-19.

The 27 other prefectures have not implemented the deemed positive system mainly because their health care systems are not as overwhelmed, although some cited the inaccuracy of the proposed system.

“There are concerns from experts on whether it is OK to simplify testing and medical examinations,” a Kagawa prefectural government official said.

An Oita prefectural government official said, “Confirming infections without testing and treating patients is undesirable under ordinary circumstances.”

Okinawa Prefecture decided not to use the deemed positive system because the number of new infections has been dropping since peaking on Jan. 15. Testing is now more readily available in the prefecture.

The health ministry noted that the Omicron variant is more infectious than previous strains and has spread at homes. “It is highly likely that family members living together are infected,” a ministry official said.

The ministry requires people who are deemed positive to report to public health centers.