Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, right, speaks at an Aug. 2 meeting of relevant Cabinet ministers to discuss medical treatment of COVID-19 patients. (Koichi Ueda)

The government’s new policy of providing hospital treatment only for COVID-19 patients in serious condition or at high risk of becoming severely ill has sparked criticism that other infected people are being “abandoned.”

The Suga administration decided on Aug. 2 to ask prefectures to impose the new hospitalization policy in areas with surging numbers of novel coronavirus infections to prevent the medical system from collapsing.

Patients with mild or moderate symptoms are currently hospitalized, but they will be asked to recuperate at home, in principle, if they are considered at low risk of developing serious symptoms.

Those with mild or no symptoms will no longer be allowed to recuperate at hotels or other accommodation facilities unless they are likely to infect family members at home.

Novel coronavirus infections, led by the Delta variant, are spreading at an unprecedented speed around Japan.

“The health care system is facing a greater strain, particularly in Tokyo,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said at an Aug. 2 meeting with relevant Cabinet ministers, including health minister Norihisa Tamura and Yasutoshi Nishimura, the state minister of economic revitalization, who is also in charge of the government’s novel coronavirus measures.

The health ministry defines patients requiring ventilators or treatment at ICUs as “serious” cases.

Patients who suffer shortness of breath and are confirmed to have pneumonia or require oxygen inhalation are categorized as “moderate” cases.

Those who have no respiratory symptoms other than coughing are placed in the “mild” category.

In past waves of infections, a number of patients recuperating at home died after their conditions suddenly worsened.

To prevent a repeat, the central government will urge local governments to strengthen monitoring of patients at their homes. It will promote online medical examinations and distribute pulse oximeters, which can measure blood oxygen levels.

The government will pay an additional 9,500 yen ($87) in treatment fees to doctors if they visit patients resting at home or other accommodation facilities.

Prefectural governments will decide whether their jurisdictions fall under areas with spikes in new COVID-19 cases. The health ministry said it will allow local authorities to implement the changes according to their needs.

Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, described the government’s new hospitalization policy as “unbelievable” at the party’s meeting on Aug. 3.

“The government says it will ask patients (at low risk of becoming seriously ill) to recuperate at home, but that effectively means it is abandoning them,” Edano said. “The government has repeatedly assured the public that they are ‘safe and secure.’ And it suddenly says it can no longer provide hospital treatment to patients even if they have moderate symptoms.

“I feel strong resentment toward this lack of crisis management.”

Akira Koike, head of the Japanese Communist Party’s Secretariat, tweeted on Aug. 2 that the changes to the hospitalization policy are unacceptable because the government made the decision without convening the Diet or hearing experts’ opinions.

The surge in infections has already put a heavy strain on health care systems around the country.

As of Aug. 1, the occupancy rate of hospital beds set aside for COVID-19 patients was 49 percent in Tokyo, 57 percent in Saitama Prefecture and 73 percent in Okinawa Prefecture.

Some local governments have adopted stricter criteria for hospitalizing COVID-19 patients.

Last December, Kanagawa Prefecture introduced a new triage system based on patients’ age, underlying conditions, blood oxygen levels and other factors.