THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
November 18, 2020 at 17:58 JST
A sense of crisis is spreading among local governments around Japan as hospital beds designated to treat COVID-19 patients are rapidly filling up during the third wave of novel coronavirus infections.
“The biggest concern is if the number of elderly patients takes a sudden jump,” Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai said at a news conference on Nov. 16.
The governor suggested he will issue a prefecture-wide state of emergency if necessary.
The accumulative number of COVID-19 cases in the northern prefecture was about 500 as of mid-October. But the number has doubled in the past month.
Exacerbating matters was confirmation of an infection cluster at a nursing home in the prefectural capital of Sendai on Oct. 31.
The prefecture as of Oct. 30 had secured 72 hospital beds to treat COVID-19 patients, and just over 40 percent of these beds were in use at the time.
However, many of the 44 people at the nursing home who tested positive for the virus are elderly and at higher risk of developing severe symptoms. They quickly filled up the unused hospital beds.
The Miyagi prefectural government secured additional beds, raising the number to 91 as of Nov. 16. About 75 percent of all beds are now occupied.
The prefectural government has estimated that it can increase the number of beds up to 345 with cooperation from health care institutions. But meeting that target could be difficult for hospitals that provide care for non-COVID-19 patients.
A staff member at a private hospital in the prefecture that takes in emergency patients is worried that the hospital “may not be able to save lives that can be saved” if all the beds are filled.
Farther north, in Hokkaido, where about 200 new infections have been confirmed daily, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients reached 686 on Nov. 16. That means 70 percent of the 963 secured hospital beds are no longer available for immediate use in Hokkaido.
At a hospital in the Hokkaido city of Asahikawa, an infection cluster earlier this month spread the virus to 63 people. Five core hospitals in the city had secured about 100 beds for COVID-19 patients, but the cluster resulted in 60 percent of them being filled.
The Japanese Red Cross Asahikawa Hospital has taken in 19 patients, many of whom were transferred from the infested hospital and are bedridden.
“We’re approaching the limit in terms of the number of on-site staff,” Kenichi Makino, the Asahikawa hospital’s director, said. “Wearing protective gear while taking care of patients who need special assistance is unimaginably exhausting work.”
The number of occupied hospital beds announced by the central government does not reflect the actual number of beds available for immediate use because the figure is based on the maximum number of secured beds available.
In Sapporo, about 360 beds have been secured for treating COVID-19 patients. But in the Hokkaido capital, at least one hospital could not accept an infected patient because it did not have enough medical staff on hand.
Neighboring cities have asked hospitals in Sapporo if they can accept some of their COVID-19 patients, according to Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto.
“But it will eventually be difficult to take them,” Akimoto said at a Nov. 17 news conference.
In Tokyo, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Nov. 16 exceeded 1,300 for the first time in about two months. More than 40 of them had severe symptoms, topping that level for the first time in about half a year.
The metropolitan government on Nov. 17 urged local health care institutions to increase the number of hospital beds available for those with severe symptoms, which is currently 150.
In neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture, the prefectural government on Nov. 14 issued a medical alert, requesting local hospitals to make more beds available for COVID-19 patients.
Under the alert, the prefectural government plans to increase the number of beds available for immediate use from about 650 to around 1,110 in two weeks.
“The number of infected patients as a whole has rapidly increased as well as the number of elderly patients,” Yoshihiro Yamaguchi, who heads the Trauma and Critical Care Center of Kyorin University Hospital in Tokyo, said. “The situation is clearly different from a week ago.”
He said governments need to ask hospitals in advance to make more beds available, otherwise they won’t be able to keep up with the speed of the infection spread.
But due to limits on capacity, it sometimes takes time to find a hospital that has a bed available for a patient with severe symptoms, Yamaguchi said.
“The percentage of middle-age and older patients is high right now. The burden on the medical front is very different from the second wave of the pandemic when many patients were young. There needs to be measure taken to decrease the number of infection cases itself,” he added.
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