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COVID-19 patient staying at home 'imagined death' due to strained medical system in Japan

This screenshot provided by the man's mother shows their conversation on the free messaging app LINE. The man tells his mother about his blood oxygen level dropping, but after being contacted by the local public health center with her help, he informs her that he was told to stay at home and to call an ambulance if it becomes difficult to breathe. The mother asks if she should call an ambulance, but the man replies that he will do so if it gets difficult to breathe.

SAITAMA -- Many patients were unable to be hospitalized due to the strained medical system across Japan amid the fifth wave of the coronavirus infections, and one man in this city north of Tokyo who was forced to stay at home to recover said he "imagined death" during his struggle against the disease.

    In Saitama Prefecture, there were multiple cases in August in which patients recuperating at home died after their condition suddenly took a turn for the worse.

    The male office worker in his 30s had a fever of 40 degrees Celsius on Aug. 7, and a hospital test came out positive for COVID-19. As his wife was over at her parents' home, the man recuperated at home on his own. The man says he remembers his initial blood oxygen level was about 95%, and he did not expect his symptoms to worsen.

    However, he continued to suffer from a high fever of 38-40 degrees C, and his blood oxygen level began dropping from around Aug. 15, and decreased to 87% on Aug. 16 and 17. The man explained, "I was breathing, but I couldn't get oxygen in my lungs even though I wanted to. It's like you are drowning in a pool all the time, and trying hard to breathe. I imagined death."

    Saitama Prefecture had a system to rate patients' symptoms and arrange hospitalization for those who scored six or more points. The man had symptoms including a fever of 38 degrees C or higher for three days in a row (six points), a blood oxygen level of 93% or lower (six points), and persistent severe coughing or breathing difficulties (four points) and was on standby to be hospitalized. The local public health center added the man to a waiting list on Aug. 16, and the man also wanted to be hospitalized as he worried his condition could change suddenly.

    However, hospital beds in the prefecture were running out. Even though the man waited for several days, he could not be hospitalized and was told "there're no hospital beds" by the health center. He was instructed to call an ambulance if it became difficult to breathe.

    He felt his condition had worsened at night, when he could not contact anyone, and thought of calling an ambulance. However, he did not call for help in the end, thinking it would work out somehow. After spending most of his time sleeping, his symptoms gradually improved and the man recovered on Aug. 26 -- after some 20 days waiting at home.

    The man said he felt the need for the establishment of a system allowing patients recuperating at home to freely consult a professional when their symptoms worsen. During his recuperation, the man's contact with a health care worker was limited to about 10 minutes on the phone once a day with a health nurse at the public health center.

    The man said, "Even if you don't receive a prescription, it's mentally reassuring to be able to consult a medical institution."

    A specialist in treating COVID-19 said, "This man probably had pneumonia. Since the coronavirus is a viral infection, patients often heal spontaneously even if they have pneumonia. But if you have a lot of inflammation, or if you can't keep on breathing due to the pneumonia spreading in the lungs, patients can die." They said it is desirable to treat the disease at an early stage.

    (Japanese original by Shoko Washizu, Saitama Bureau)

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