Photo/Illutration Health care personnel in protective gear work in the area for COVID-19 patients at the Self-Defense Forces Central Hospital in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward in December. (Daizo Teramoto)

More than 3,000 people in Tokyo who tested positive for the novel coronavirus were denied hospital treatment or self-isolation chambers during year-end period because public health centers are already overwhelmed in the COVID-19 crisis.

A health ministry expert panel made a fresh plea for prompt measures to slow the spread of the disease at a Jan. 6 news conference following a meeting earlier the day. It said the current state of infections in Japan is at “a record level.”

The experts said increases in new coronavirus cases have jeopardized hospital treatment for patients with illnesses other than COVID-19, not just in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but also in the heavily populated Chubu and Kansai regions.

Data presented to the meeting showed that in the capital, public health centers could not find a hospital or a facility for isolation for more than 1,500 COVID-19 patients over the week from Dec. 20 to Dec. 26. The number more than doubled in the following week.

“In some cases, infected people in long-term care facilities could not be moved to a hospital” because medical facilities were inundated with patients, Takaji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who heads the panel, said.

Hospital beds are quickly filling up and workers at public health centers and hospitals are overstretched in dealing with the spike in new COVID-19 cases over the past weeks, according to experts.

The national tally of new cases reached 24,667 over the week through Jan. 4, with Tokyo accounting for about 25 percent of the total. The ratio jumped to half when the figure for the capital was combined with those of neighboring Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures.

The effective reproduction number, which is how many people one person with COVID-19 will infect, was 1.09 as of Dec. 19.

As of Jan. 4, 74.9 percent of hospital beds secured for a peak in the pandemic were occupied in Tokyo.

The comparable figure was 70.6 percent in Aichi Prefecture, 68.3 percent in Hyogo Prefecture, 67.0 percent in Osaka Prefecture, and 66.3 percent in Saitama Prefecture.

(This story was written by Naoyuki Himeno and Shuichi Doi.)