Photo/Illutration Okinawa residents form a line outside a PCR testing center in Naha, the prefectural capital, on Jan. 9, when the city center is almost empty. (Tsukasa Kimura)

Okinawa, already in the grip of the worst ratio among prefectures of new COVID-19 cases per head of population, is facing the grim reality of the illness striking across all age groups, particularly the elderly who are most at risk.

Until now, novel coronavirus infections had mainly affected young residents of the prefecture who are more prone to going out and mingling in groups.

It was also reported that the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients in the prefecture stood at six on Jan. 19 after a lull that had remained at zero.

Authorities expressed concern that this sixth wave of the pandemic driven by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant is taking its toll across all generations.

With a growing number of prefectures posting record COVID-19 figures, local officials said they expect that other parts of Japan will soon face a health crisis on the scale that is afflicting Okinawa.

Of all new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Okinawa Prefecture from Jan. 2 to Jan. 8, prefectural authorities said 4,204 patients, or 63 percent of the total, were in their 20s or 30s.

But that age group only accounted for 41 percent, or 3,969 cases, of those confirmed in the southernmost prefecture from Jan. 9 to Jan. 15.

By contrast, the number of new COVID-19 patients in their 40s or 50s increased 2.2-fold, from 1,023 to 2,275, over the same period.

The figure for patients in their 60s or 70s increased by 2.4 times from 301 to 716.

A similar trend was evident among those in their 80s or older, with the figure increasing by 2.2 times, from 97 patients to 218 over the same period.

For those aged 19 or younger, the figure increased by 2.3 times, from 1,034 to 2,421 patients.

Most new patients only show mild symptoms. However, older patients tend to develop more serious symptoms.

Yoshihiro Takayama, a physician and deputy head of infectious diseases at Okinawa Chubu Hospital, who also serves as policy counselor on the crisis to the Okinawa prefectural government, analyzed data on the seriousness of symptoms among 1,234 new COVID-19 cases reported from Jan. 1 to Jan. 16 in the Miyako and Yaeyama medical areas of Okinawa Prefecture.

He found that patients categorized as Moderate I, who suffered from breathing difficulties or pneumonia, accounted for only 2.6 percent of all patients in all age groups. But when he studied case files of patients in their 80s or older, 32.1 percent were classified as Moderate I. For those in their 60s or 70s, he found that 7.6 percent were Moderate I patients.

Those with Moderate II severity, who require oxygen inhalation, only accounted for 1.6 percent of all patients. However, the figure was much higher among those in their 80s or older, at 21.4 percent.

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“Infection is spreading among residents of all ages (in Okinawa Prefecture) via family members or work colleagues,” Takayama said. “The elderly or those with underlying health conditions are more likely to require hospitalization if they become infected with the virus.”

He cautioned that hospitals in the prefecture could run out of beds for COVID-19 patients if cases among older residents continue to rise.

According to the Cabinet Secretariat in Tokyo, the occupancy rate of hospital beds set aside for COVID-19 patients in Okinawa Prefecture stood at 58 percent as of Jan. 18, or 38 points higher than two weeks earlier.

General medical services in the prefecture are also reeling from the impact of the crisis.

A health ministry team in charge of tracking COVID-19 clusters analyzed the data on 97 patients, who were among the 105 Okinawa residents infected with the Omicron variant and were showing COVID-19 symptoms. They found that 81 of 97 ran fevers of 37.5 degrees or higher.

Other symptoms including hacking coughs (59 people), general fatigue (55 people) and sore throat (45 people). Only one person was suffering from a loss of smell or taste, which is regarded as a tell-tale COVID-19 symptom.

The median incubation period for the Omicron variant is only three days. The team also determined that of 102 people who live with the 105 patients, 36, or 35 percent of the total, caught the virus as a result.

“It is important to use hospital beds efficiently by ensuring that local entities liaise better with each other, and of course, to prevent serious symptoms from developing by making sure more people get vaccinated,” Takayama said.

(This article was written by Senior Staff Writer Tokiko Tsuji and Akiyoshi Abe.)