Photo/Illutration Hospital workers treat a COVID-19 patient at Jichi Medical University Saitama Medical Center in Saitama in May. (Ryo Ikeda)

Health care workers around the nation fear hospitals may soon lack beds, trained staff and equipment to treat seriously ill COVID-19 patients during the “second wave” of novel coronavirus infections.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced on July 31 that 39 of Japan’s 47 prefectures reported increases in the number of new coronavirus patients hospitalized over the week through July 29.

The hospital bed occupancy rate topped 40 percent in Saitama and Osaka prefectures.

The bed occupancy rates surged by 10 percentage points or more from the previous week in 12 prefectures, including Aichi, Shiga, Fukuoka and Okinawa.

The rate was 39 percent in Aichi Prefecture and 37 percent for the remaining 11 prefectures.

As of July 1, Hokkaido and Saitama were the only prefectures with bed occupancy rates exceeding 10 percent.

With new infection numbers continuing to climb, medical experts are worried about a surge in seriously ill patients in the weeks ahead, particularly those aged 60 or older, who are prone to develop serious symptoms.

As of July 29, there were 92 seriously ill COVID-19 patients nationwide, compared with 300 from late April to early May.

But Tokyo, Hyogo and 14 other prefectures on July 29 reported 2.3 times as many of those patients as the total of 40 on July 1.

In the “first wave” of infections in March, the number of seriously ill patients rose weeks after the peak in new infections, according to medical experts.

Their care affected the treatment of patients with other diseases, often resulting in delays in surgeries and restrictions of emergency care.

Seriously ill COVID-19 patients are usually treated with ventilators or in intensive care units. But securing that equipment and the necessary staff for such care is not an easy task, hospital officials said.

During the first wave of the outbreak, it took Showa University Hospital in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward around two weeks to open up more ICUs for COVID-19 patients. The hospital has been treating patients in moderate to severe condition.

Hospital officials managed to make additional ICUs available for COVID-19 patients after persuading surgeons to postpone half of their scheduled surgeries.

The hospital returned to normal on July 1 due in part to the decline in infected patients in June.

“It is difficult to switch back to a system to respond to the coronavirus after finally returning to normal operations,” said Hironori Sagara, director of the hospital.

The hospital has secured 18 beds for coronavirus patients and is considering whether to expand the number to 35, the same as in May.

To financially support those on the front lines of the pandemic, the health ministry has tripled the amount of medical treatment fees for COVID-19 that will be reimbursed to hospitals, compared with the level before May 26.

The ministry has also decided to take other support measures for the hospitals, such as providing funds to set aside beds in preparation for COVID-19 patients.

But many hospital operators said the measures are not enough.

One hospital in Tokyo has been treating COVID-19 patients, including those seriously ill, for more than half a year.

At the peak, more than 60 COVID-19 patients were admitted there. The number decreased to about 10 at one point before rebounding to more than 30 now.

“Doctors and nurses specializing in infectious diseases are exhausted,” the head of the hospital said. “They are getting stressed out just by putting on and taking off their protective gear.”

(This article was written by Ayako Tsukidate, Yuko Matsuura and Shuichi Doi.)