Photo/Illutration Doctors and nurses at Kyorin University Hospital in Tokyo treat a patient brought into the emergency room. (Ryo Kato)

Health ministry officials are pushing a legal revision to give prefectural governors more power to secure hospitals beds for COVID-19 patients and the authority to shame medical institutions that do not cooperate.

A panel of experts approved a proposal by the health ministry submitted on Jan. 15 to change the Infectious Diseases Prevention Law to deal with the rising number of novel coronavirus infections around Japan.

Health ministry officials plan to submit legislation early in the ordinary Diet session to convene on Jan. 18 to revise the law.

Currently, prefectural governors or the health minister can only “request” that health care professionals cooperate in preventing a further spread of an infectious disease.

The proposed change would upgrade the “request” to a “recommendation,” and medical institutions that refuse to cooperate without an adequate reason would have their names revealed.

Hospitals are currently under increasing strain in treating COVID-19 patients, even though Japan has the highest number of hospital beds per 1,000 people among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Japan’s figure of 13 hospital beds per 1,000 people is four to five times higher than that of the United States and Britain.

And while the recent surge in COVID-19 infections pushed Japan’s total close to 320,000, the number pales in comparison to the 23 million in the United States and 3.2 million of Britain.

Although it may seem puzzling that there are not enough hospital beds in Japan to treat COVID-19 patients, the situation has become dire for many who have tested positive, particularly in urban centers.

As of Jan. 14, there were about 6,500 patients in Tokyo alone who were still trying to find places in hospitals for treatment or designated lodging facilities for rest and recuperation because they have minor symptoms or are asymptomatic.

According to a health ministry study, about 60 percent of hospitals established by a public entity have accepted COVID-19 patients, but only about 20 percent of private hospitals have done so.

Because private hospitals make up about 70 percent of the total, government officials are hoping the legal revision will prompt more of those hospitals to cooperate and set up beds for COVID-19 patients.

However, there is no guarantee the revision will help ease the strain on hospitals.

Many private hospitals are small in scale and may not be able to implement infection-prevention measures before taking in COVID-19 patients. And if staff members raise concerns about their own health, those hospitals may have no choice but to refuse to cooperate with the “recommendations.”

Tomoaki Imamura, a professor of public health at Nara Medical University who also serves on a health ministry panel regarding regional medical planning, said having governors issue recommendations may make it easier for more hospitals to cooperate.

“In the case of private hospitals, it will be more difficult to accept COVID-19 patients compared with public hospitals if staff hold strong feelings against the disease,” Imamura said. “The health ministry and prefectural governments will likely look into the situation at a hospital before issuing the recommendation so there will likely be no uncoordinated issuing of such recommendations.”

(This article was written by Kohei Tomida and Hisashi Hattori.)