Only a Big Increase in Testing Will Save Okinawan Lives and Sustain Okinawan Tourism

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

This quote from Albert Einstein is tapping at the back of my brain recently. The 1st wave of SARS-CoV-2 inflicted a relatively low number of infections, and we kept Okinawa free of the virus for many weeks. During this period of raised vigilance and good fortune we learned to avoid the 3 Cs (Closed spaces, Crowded spaces, Close-contact settings), wear masks, protect the elderly and vulnerable, and embed physical distancing and strict hygiene. The measures worked.

Then, travel restrictions were relaxed and national travel resumed. Okinawan islands watched nervously. It was very clear that new infections could only come from the outside.

Now, Okinawa has the highest number of cases per 100,000 people in all of Japan. We have recorded 100 new infections on August 7th. The daily peak, and the total number, are significantly higher than during the 1st wave.

As a result, Okinawa’s hospitals are overloaded. The prefecture has run out of medical professionals and OPG has begun urgently to recruit experienced clinical staff from inside and out.

More than 300 patients are waiting to be admitted in hospitals, where capacity already stands at nearly 130%.

We should feel acute concern that a Naha home for seniors recently confirmed seven cases among residents aged between 70 and 100 and staff. While many of the recent new infections have been seen among the young, and linked to nightlife, COVID-19 in Okinawa has now reached the most vulnerable members of our community.

A failure to test incoming military personnel also led to infections in Camp Hansen, Futenma, and Kadena, with the virus spreading to other military installations like Camp Courtney and Camp Foster -- raising to the overall probability of spread across Okinawa.

Quite appropriately, Governor Denny Tamaki announced a state of emergency from August 1 to 15. Based on the very high numbers of infected people, Okinawa declared pandemic alert level 3 (out of 4).

Of course, as we experienced with the 1st wave, a lockdown would reduce the overall number of cases. But it would also make a substantial impact on public life, jobs and livelihoods, jeopardizing the entire economy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday: “The aim is to prevent the spread of infections as much as possible, while also keeping social and economic activity going.” And indeed, we could employ simple means to accomplish this goal.

In the United Kingdom and in several regions of Germany, travelers are undertaking ‘PCR Testing’ to check for infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Japan now requires people returning to the country to have this test at international airports in Tokyo and Osaka. With the help of this technology, every incoming visitor to Okinawa can be tested, and those carrying the virus can be identified.

Furthermore, progress in PCR technology now enables ‘Group Testing’ strategy – the overall testing number can be greatly increased and the process can be carried out at any location.

One company in the UK, DnaNudge, has developed a machine, the Nudgebox, that delivers a result in 90 minutes, on the spot. There is no need to move samples to a lab. If a traveler arrives in Okinawa, and we want to be certain they are not infected with COVID-19, we have the means to establish the facts. Visitors would be referred for medical care and isolation, or get on with their vacation, supporting local jobs and services.

Clearly, the virus will be with us for years. It is not yet clear yet if vaccination will work effectively.

Therefore, there is only one way to achieve public protection and Okinawa prosperity. We need testing, testing, testing.

I strongly urge the prefecture to increase its testing capacity, employing the latest technologies to identify SARS-CoV-2 positive individuals at the earliest possible moment. This will protect people but it would also save Okinawa money in the months and years ahead. Acting now on testing can reduce or prevent a 3rd or even 4th Wave – sparing the prefecture from terrible economic damage, and giving our vital hospitality industry hope of customer confidence and sustainable business. Okinawa Institute for Science and Technology will continue to do its utmost to assist OPG in this effort.

By Dr. Peter Gruss, President/CEO, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST)

The Japanese translation of this article was published on August 9, 2020 in the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper under the title "コロナ緊急提言 入域時検査の強化を ピーター・グルース沖縄科学技術大学院大学長".