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Editorial: Japan must urgently secure supplies, workers for strained medical field

The Japanese medical system is under pressure from the spread of novel coronavirus infections, and the country's government must ramp up countermeasures to prevent the system's collapse.

The first danger is a lack of hospital beds. There are fears that medical institutions across Japan will not be able to secure enough beds, leading to a patient overload.

The government has expanded its state of emergency declaration to cover the whole country. In Tokyo and other areas that were subject to the initial declaration, a system is being advanced to isolate infected people with no or only light symptoms at hotels. Prefectures more recently placed under the state of emergency need to quickly make similar preparations to prioritize the treatment of patients with severe conditions.

One worrying point is the increase of group infections at medical institutions. People are being hospitalized without confirmation of their infection status, leading in some cases to transmissions inside hospitals, while some people with other illnesses or injuries have also become the source of infections.

Additionally, some medical institutions worried about care descending into chaos amid the pandemic have been refusing to accept emergency patients. This could result in a worst-case scenario where hospitals cannot save people other than COVID-19 cases.

Hospitals ungently need to divide up their roles, from facilities that accept suspected coronavirus patients, to those handling people with moderate or severe symptoms, and those caring for patients with other conditions. We hope that local bodies will start considering the issue in conjunction with medical associations.

There is another reason for hospitals' reluctance to accept patients infected with the new coronavirus. Since treatment fees paid to hospitals under the medical insurance system are low for infectious diseases, accepting more of these patients will impact medical facilities' finances. The government should boost their financial support.

The lack of medical workers is also a problem. Doctors and nurses are already exhausted, and if there is an outbreak in a hospital, there won't be enough workers left to go around.

Facilities need to cooperate with medical associations and nurses' groups to find retired medical workers and get them back on the job. Young doctors-in-training also represent a valuable workforce. We hope that remuneration and mental and physical care for medical practitioners will be considered at the national level so that they can put their skills and experiences to use and continue to work safely.

Another aspect of the crisis is the lack of protective gear for medical workers. There is a shortage of N95 masks that can block out 95% of pathogens, and some facilities are reusing masks. There is also a lack of protective clothing and face shields.

Since doctors and nurses are battling an invisible enemy, they can't go into the fight without protection. The Japanese government should quickly prepare a system to increase production of protective gear. It should exercise leadership in boosting supply, promising to buy up any excess in the event of overproduction.

The medical field is the last line of defense in protecting the lives of citizens. We cannot allow it to fall apart.

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