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Japan to face bed shortage in ICUs in event of pandemic peak: study

A doctor wears a protective suit, with mask, goggles and gloves, while assisting a patient in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for COVID-19 patients at San Marco Hospital in Catania on April 23, 2020 in Catania, Italy. (Getty/Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Most of Japan's 47 prefectures are likely to face a shortage of beds in intensive care units for treating severe coronavirus patients under a peak scenario envisaged by the government, a Kyodo News study showed Saturday.

    In 21 prefectures, the number of severely ill patients with the COVID-19 disease would be more than double the number of ICU beds available, the study found, underscoring the vulnerability of the nation's medical system against the rising virus threat.

    Experts urged the government to consider using high care units for less severe patients and increasing the number of medical professionals to treat COVID-19 patients so as to avoid the collapse of the medical system.

    While the number of ICU beds totals about 6,000 in Japan, that of HCU beds stands at about 5,000, according to the Japan Medical Association.

    Assuming that a COVID-19 patient infects an average of two people with the pneumonia-causing virus -- a scenario based on formulae used by the government -- Kyodo calculated the number of severely ill patients by prefecture at a peak time.

    The news agency compared the latest numbers of ICU beds available based on data provided by the Japan Medical Association Research Institute.

    According to the study, Tokyo would have 903 severe COVID-19 patients against 848 ICU beds available, Osaka 666 such patients for 513 beds and Fukuoka 388 such patients for 327 beds.

    All of the nation's 47 prefectures except Okayama and Okinawa would have fewer beds than the number of severely ill patients.

    Twenty-one prefectures including Hokkaido, Niigata, Saitama and Hiroshima would have more than twice the number of such patients than ICU beds available.

    An ICU is an isolated, special ward that provides critical care and life support for acutely ill and injured patients, equipped with devices such as ventilators and artificial lungs.

    Overseas studies show that Japan lags behind other advanced nations in the availability of ICU beds.

    According to one study, the United States has about 35 ICU beds for 100,000 people, higher than about 29 in Germany, 12 in Italy and five in Japan.

    Daily counts of new infections have risen in Japan since the government expanded its state of emergency declaration to all parts of the country on April 16, with patients filling hospital beds quickly in the Tokyo metropolitan area and other parts of the country.

    St. Marianna University School of Medicine Hospital in Kawasaki near Tokyo said all its 15 ICU beds are filled with new patients brought in almost as soon as some leave.

    Shigeki Fujitani, a professor of emergency medicine at the hospital, said doctors may in the near future be forced to choose who gets life-saving treatment if the situation further deteriorates.

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