THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
December 1, 2020 at 18:05 JST
Osaka City General Hospital, a core hospital in Osaka, will temporarily close its ward for younger cancer patients as more nurses are needed to care for the spike in COVID-19 patients. (Takefumi Horinouchi)
OSAKA—The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing a hospital here to shut down a special ward for young cancer patients, raising fears among medical staff about the physical and mental well-being of those under their care.
The cancer ward at Osaka City General Hospital will temporarily close this month because nurses there will be reassigned to tend to the rising number of COVID-19 patients, hospital officials said.
All patients at the dedicated cancer ward will be moved to other wards within the hospital. The officials said they have no idea when the cancer ward will be able to reopen.
Other wards specializing in the treatment of other illnesses have also faced worker shortages because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But the decision to temporarily close the cancer ward has hit staff members particularly hard.
“The ward is one of only a handful of such facilities in the country,” said one worker. “I understand the need to address the pandemic, but a ward providing special care like this should not be shut down.”
The ward for cancer patients in their teens through 30s opened in April 2018 as the second such ward in Japan.
Around 20 nurses are currently assigned to care for about 20 cancer patients in the 38-bed ward.
The ward was set up to encourage patients in similar generations to share their problems and avoid being isolated while they battle the disease. Social workers regularly visit the ward to provide social and mental support to the patients by helping them sort out financial and other problems.
The hospital, located in Miyakojima Ward, is a core hospital in Osaka and is operated by the Osaka City Hospital Organization.
It has been treating COVID-19 patients in serious condition while its sister hospital, Osaka City Juso Hospital, based in Yodogawa Ward, is focused on patients with moderate symptoms.
But in recent weeks, demand at both hospitals has grown sharply for nurses who can treat the rising number of COVID-19 patients.
Public-supported hospitals that have been on the front lines of the pandemic have been under increasing pressure to accept more patients with the disease.
Under such circumstances, the Osaka City Hospital Organization decided on Nov. 26 to enlist nurses at the cancer ward to work in coronavirus units.
During the first wave of the pandemic in April, Osaka City General Hospital temporarily shut down its palliative care wards for cancer and orthopedic patients to allow more nurses to care for COVID-19 patients. A gynecological ward followed four months later.
Those wards remain closed.
An official with the organization stressed the closures were a “one-time measure.”
“We have no choice but to scale back some wards to treat coronavirus patients,” the official said.
CRISIS WORSENS IN PREFECTURE
Osaka Prefecture is now nearing the most serious Level 4 under the central government’s standards on virus infections. Level 4 indicates an explosive growth in infections.
The Osaka prefectural government said it has secured 206 hospital beds to treat COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms. But only 143 of these beds are operable because of the shortage of medical personnel.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said it is not aware of other hospitals in the nation that have been forced to close wards to free up workers to care for coronavirus patients.
The ministry has urged hospital officials to balance treatment of COVID-19 patients and other diseases, an official said.
“It is ultimately up to prefectural and other local authorities to decide whether some hospital wards should be closed to treat coronavirus patients,” the official said.
Workers at Osaka City General Hospital expressed alarm over the temporary closure of the cancer ward, pointing out the possibility that the adolescent and young adult patients could be left isolated without proper care, including mental support.
Cancer patients in this age group total 20,000, or about 2 percent of the people diagnosed with cancer each year in Japan.
Treatment of these younger cancer patients requires collaboration among doctors, nurses and other professionals of various fields, according to health experts.
In addition to being in the minority among cancer patients, adolescents and young adults must battle the disease at a time when they experience significant changes in their lives, such as starting a career, getting married and planning a family.
As a result, they tend to be more emotionally vulnerable than older cancer patients.
Osaka City General Hospital’s cancer ward opened to help mitigate the patients’ psychological burden by allowing them to fight the disease with the support of others in similar situations and age groups.
One staff worker at the ward called for starting discussions on how to protect treatments of patients with other diseases during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Otherwise, important medical care will be sacrificed one by one unless the pandemic comes under control,” the staff worker said.
Yoko Matsumoto, a representative of the Japan Federation of Cancer Patient Groups, called for measures to address concerns shared by patients suffering illnesses other than COVID-19.
“For the hospital, it must have been a difficult decision to close the ward,” said Matsumoto, who underwent cancer therapy when she was 33.
“Authorities should draw up measures against the novel coronavirus while understanding that closing the ward will deprive young people of care in a setting where they feel comfortable.”
(This article was compiled from reports by Yoshichika Yamanaka, Takefumi Horinouchi and Ayako Tsukidate.)
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