Photo/Illutration A bed secured for a COVID-19 patient at the Osaka City General Hospital in January (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The health ministry is planning to call on prefectural authorities to secure more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients to prepare for a new surge in infections and stave off shortages.

It aims to secure about twice the number set aside for coronavirus patients at the height of the third wave of infections that started late last year.

The ministry’s latest move follows reports from Japan’s overstretched local health care systems that they have been inundated with patients since new cases shot up at year end and in early January.

For example, by the middle of January, more than 80 percent of the hospital beds in the capital designated for coronavirus patients were occupied.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare urged prefectural authorities in February to expand the health care systems’ capacity by having hospitals in local areas divide their roles in caring for patients depending on the seriousness of their conditions.

The ministry said university hospitals, which have advanced medical equipment, should care for gravely ill patients, while public-supported hospitals that play a core role in dealing with patients in local areas should focus on those with moderate symptoms.

The current plans for allocating beds for COVID-19 patients in the prefectures were drawn up last June, based on data from the first wave of infections--which was far lower than the latest wave.

Hospitals could not adequately respond to the third wave because it was not made clear how they should divide their roles in caring for patients, officials said.

Under the ministry’s new recommendation, hospitals and local authorities are expected to discuss how to divvy up individual hospitals’ roles and determine the number of beds needed based on the spread of infections.

Small and midsize hospitals, which typically have limited resources for dealing with infectious diseases, will be asked to accept patients who have recovered from COVID-19 well enough to be discharged from other facilities.

The ministry also plans to enlist clinics and home-visit nursing stations to assist in closely monitoring patients with mild cases who are self-isolating at their homes or hotels.

At the third wave’s peak, thousands of patients in Tokyo were unable to access care at hospitals as they were overwhelmed by patients.

The new COVID-19 preparedness plan aims to expand the abilities of health care systems to handle patient hospitalizations and recoveries, even if novel coronavirus cases double from their peak during the third wave.

Hospital and local officials, as well as local doctors’ associations, will need to fully discuss the matter to hash out a workable plan.