Photo/Illutration Staff treat a COVID-19 patient at Chiba University Hospital on July 30 in Chiba’s Chuo Ward. (Hiromi Kumai)

Hospitals in areas around Tokyo are being besieged by the current “fifth wave” of novel coronavirus infections, which is restricting their capacity to provide basic services.

“Our priority right now is taking COVID-19 measures. We need to restrict the entire scope of medical care,” said Kotaro Yokote, director of Chiba University Hospital in the capital of Chiba Prefecture, at a hospital meeting on Aug. 3.

A state of emergency was issued for Chiba Prefecture the previous day.

The hospital is expected to increase beds for treating COVID-19 patients with moderate and severe symptoms from 31 to 60 within two weeks.

The expanded 60 beds will include 10 in intensive care units and 50 on COVID-19-only floors.

An average of three to four operations are performed at the hospital on a daily basis. But to hit the 60-bed target, the hospital will reduce the number of surgeries by half.

It will also decrease the number of patients who are admitted to the ICU after undergoing surgery.

The number of hospitalized patients will also be reduced to 80 percent to divert more nurses to treating COVID-19 patients.

Treating a COVID-19 patient in an ICU typically requires a nurse's full attention, necessitating twice the normal staffing.

There are 18 ICU beds at the hospital.

“If we take in 10 COVID-19 patients, we cannot see any other patient,” a nurse said.

Ryoko Abe, a vice director of the nursing department at the hospital, said, “Last spring, we had to postpone operations such as removing tumors and ophthalmic as well as orthopedic procedures.”

“These operations are non-life-threatening, but I am filled with guilt that (the situation) has affected patients’ lives.”

In Chiba, an infection cluster has occurred at schools and kindergartens.

Multiple staff of the hospital have been identified as having close contact and are unable to come to work.

Seiichiro Sakao, a doctor of respiratory medicine at the hospital, said, “We have had a case in the city occur in which an ambulance was stuck for two hours without a hospital to transport a patient to.

“I think this crisis will continue until September,” he added.

The Tokyo metropolitan government on July 26 notified health care organizations to postpone scheduled operations and limit general practice to respond to the surge of the novel coronavirus.

The University of Tokyo Hospital in Bunkyo Ward, which accepts COVID-19 patients with moderate and severe conditions, has closed three ICU beds to make available an extra bed to treat COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms.

The hospital is expected to close three more ICU beds to make a total of 12 beds available for COVID-19 patients.

It has 10 beds for COVID-19 patients with moderate symptoms and plans to increase that number as well.

The hospital’s existing beds for COVID-19 patients are already full.

It received about 20 inquiries from the metropolitan government, asking if a bed was available.

But the hospital could only accept one patient.

Decreasing the number of ICU beds means that the hospital cannot take in some emergency patients, who may need major surgery or suffered a heart attack.

“Cases in which we cannot save lives that can be saved under normal circumstances have already been occurring,” said Yasuyuki Seto, the director of the hospital.

Since last year, the hospital has shut down some units to allocate more space to accommodate COVID-19 patients.

“If the number of new infection cases continues to increase and health care workers either contract the virus or come in close contact with a patient, we may have to decrease the number of operations even further and admit fewer patients,” Seto said.

(This article was written by Hiromi Kumai and Naoyuki Himeno.)