By Linda Sieg and Sakura Murakami
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's health ministry on Wednesday defended its cautious approach to coronavirus testing as domestic cases increased and South Korea prepared to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the heart of a surge in its outbreak.
Japan had nearly 170 cases of infection from the virus as of mid-day on Wednesday, separate from 691 from a cruise liner quarantined at Yokohama port near Tokyo early this month.
The northern island of Hokkaido, the most affected area with 38 cases, reported another death, bringing Japan's total fatalities to six including four from the cruise liner.
"We know that this virus will only spread even more and yet we can't even get tested," said one mother in Hokkaido's Sapporo city, adding she hoped testing capacity would be expanded.
Government guidelines say people should get tested if they have cold-like symptoms, a fever of 37.5 Celsius or extreme tiredness or breathing problems for four days or more. In the meantime, they should stay at home.
The elderly, pregnant women or those with certain medical conditions that put them at risk should seek testing if they have such symptoms for two or more days, the guidelines say.
"The most important goal of testing is to test those with symptoms, especially the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions who are at risk of becoming seriously ill," a health ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"I think there are people who are worried and want to be tested but ... that would overwhelm the capacity of medical facilities and we couldn't treat those who need treatment."
South Korea, besides testing members of the church at the centre of a surge in cases, advises people to get tested if they have a fever or respiratory problems.
Japan since the start of the outbreak, has tested 5,740 people - 3,894 from the cruise ship, 829 people who returned on chartered flights from Wuhan, China, where the virus emerged late last year, and 1,017 domestic cases.
The ministry official said more than 3,000 tests could be done every day under central government auspices.
Masahiro Kami, a doctor and head of the non-profit Medical Governance Research Institute, said the government should test more people sooner.
"They should test early and treat early but instead they are testing after people have pneumonia to confirm the virus," Kami said.
"Earlier is better."
But other independent experts agreed with the government approach.
"It isn't good to do tests just to ease public anxiety," said Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Kobe University who this month criticised Japan's handling of the virus-hit cruise liner.
"If they test everyone with light symptoms, the medical system will puncture," he said, adding authorities needed to do more to explain the guidelines and gain public understanding.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Sapporo; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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