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Beds for COVID-19 patients 88% full in Tokyo, medical system approaching collapse

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike attends a news conference at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building on Jan. 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

TOKYO -- The rapid surge in the number of new coronavirus infections is putting the medical system in Japan's capital into a state of crisis, with 88% of hospital beds for COVID-19 already filled.

    While hospitals in Tokyo have a total of 3,500 beds designated for COVID-19 patients, the number of hospitalized patients kept increasing during the year-end and New Year holidays, reaching 3,090 on Jan. 6.

    Health care workers are having difficulty finding hospitals to send new patients to, and some workers say they are approaching the limit on what they can do.

    At Kawakita General Hospital in Tokyo's Suginami Ward, which accommodates patients with mild to moderate symptoms, its 36 beds designated for COVID-19 patients have been continuously full. Elderly patients began to increase around November last year and now account for 80% of all COVID-19 patients there. The burden on nurses and other workers who provide eating and toileting assistance has increased. Staff who kept working through the New Year holiday are visibly exhausted.

    When a patient's symptom worsens, Kawakita General Hospital usually transfers the patient to a different hospital that caters to those with severe symptoms. A hospital worker said, however, that they have been unable to find another hospital to transfer one patient to for the past several days. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has asked the hospital to increase the number of beds allocated to COVID-19 patients, but the hospital does not have the capacity to do so. A hospital official said, "The situation is getting worse markedly this year, and those of us on the ground are barely able to keep up."

    According to the metropolitan government, the number of hospitalized patients in Tokyo had remained around 1,000 since October but began to increase in mid-November. The Tokyo government eased the general rule that patients aged 65 or older must be hospitalized. Now patients with mild or no symptoms who do not have any preexisting medical conditions and are younger than 70 can recuperate at designated facilities. But the number of hospitalized patients topped 3,000 on Jan. 5, meaning the 3,500 beds secured for COVID-19 patients are nearly full. The metro government has asked medical institutions to increase the capital's total bed number to 4,000, but that has yet to be accomplished.

    This worsening situation has affected the hospitalization of patients. The number of cases in which public health centers in Tokyo request that the metro government secure hospital beds for patients because the centers could not has hovered at over 150 a day. There are many cases in which a hospital for a new patient cannot be secured within the day. A Tokyo government official said, "Securing more beds may have huge impacts on regular medical services, such as the downsizing of outpatient clinics." The official added that the metro government may review its criteria for hospitalization.

    "The 3,500 beds will be filled up within several days for sure, and the situation will get worse where medical facilities cannot accommodate new patients -- including those without the coronavirus -- or cannot perform operations," Tokyo Medical Association chairman Haruo Ozaki said. "There is significant exhaustion among health care workers, and medical services in Tokyo are in a deeper state of crisis than people think. It's necessary to reduce the number of patients in any way possible."

    (Japanese original by Asako Takeuchi, Koichi Uchida and Hitomi Saikawa, City News Department)

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