August 4, 2021 at 14:48 JST
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, right, speaks at a meeting of relevant Cabinet ministers on Aug. 2 to discuss medical treatment of COVID-19 patients. (Koichi Ueda)
The government on Aug. 2 announced its new COVID-19 treatment policy for areas with spiking novel coronavirus infections, where hospitalization will be limited only to patients in serious condition or at high risk of developing severe symptoms.
Even moderate-symptom patients with breathing problems will be asked to recuperate at home, in principle, unless they are diagnosed as being at high risk of becoming gravely ill.
The stated purpose is to secure beds for seriously ill patients. Given the nation's limited medical resources, we appreciate the need to set a priority to ensure that the more severe the patient's condition, the sooner they should be treated.
But only as recently as July 30, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga made no policy-related remarks, other than to stress the paramount importance of vaccines.
Many people must have been surprised and confused by his change of policy a mere three days later.
Suga owes a clear explanation now, not only to health care professionals and local governments, but also to the public at large, of how he came to his new policy decision and how he intends to fight the pandemic in the days ahead.
One of the characteristics of novel coronavirus infections is that being diagnosed as a light case does not mean the patient will never take a sudden turn for the worse.
Under the previous treatment policy, patients were encouraged to be hospitalized just in case, or to undergo treatment at designated hotels and other facilities permanently staffed by nurses.
But the new policy renders this difficult. It is never easy to accurately determine the degree of each patient's risk of developing severe symptoms. This means that health care personnel will be saddled with a much heavier burden and responsibility than before.
In Tokyo where surges in infections are unstoppable, more than 12,000 patients are recuperating at home, and another 8,000-plus are kept at home while waiting for vacancies at hospitals and other treatment facilities.
These numbers are too large to be covered even with all the hospital beds and treatment facilities that are supposedly available at present. In short, Tokyo's health care system is on the verge of collapse. Suga and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike bear grave responsibility for having led the public on with their fanciful optimism.
In Osaka and Tokyo, not a few people who became infected during the earlier days of the pandemic died from not receiving sufficient care while recuperating at home.
To prevent any recurrence of this tragedy, the government says it will provide improved house calls and telemedicine services and ensure swift hospitalization in the event of sudden worsening of symptoms.
But to realize all that, close collaboration with local medical practitioners is indispensable, as are securing the necessary equipment and personnel for health monitoring. The government must get going at once.
The prime minister has recently started raving about a specially approved antibody cocktail as "an epoch-making drug to reduce the patient's risk of developing severe symptoms."
But for the time being, this will be administered only to hospital inpatients. The government needs to swiftly collect data to establish a setup that will make it available to outpatients and people recuperating at home as well.
Ever since this past spring, the government has repeatedly said it was striving to secure sufficient hospital beds and recuperation facilities, but this has yet to be realized.
The virulence of the Delta variant has been known for some time now, and the government has no excuse for its failure to contain its spread.
The situation will only continue to deteriorate unless the political leaders stop holding on to unfounded optimism and making do with only stopgap countermeasures.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 4
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