BY RYUSEI TAKAHASHI, STAFF WRITER
The number of people infected with COVID-19 in Japan topped 200,000 on Monday as the disease continues to spread at unprecedented levels in major cities nationwide.
It took more than nine months, and two waves of the novel coronavirus, for the number of infections reported in the nation to reach 100,000. But it took less than two months for that figure to double, in a sign that the outbreak is gaining momentum.
Daily cases continue to set new highs in major cities. “We are still in a situation where we need to maintain the highest level of alert,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Monday.
During a news conference the same day, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announced the city would provide financial assistance to health care facilities that continue to operate between Dec. 29 and Jan. 3.
During the period, each hospital that remains open will receive ¥300,000 each day for every severely ill COVID-19 patient they treat, and ¥70,000 each day for every patient experiencing milder symptoms of the disease. Every clinic or testing center will be given ¥150,000 for every four hours they remain in operation, while pharmacies will receive ¥30,000 for each day they work.
Hospitals will receive the financial support for taking care of patients during that period of time even if they were admitted before Dec. 29.
“Experts and front-line workers continue to warn that, if this trend continues and cases keep rising, hospitals will soon become overwhelmed,” Koike said. “It’s crucial that we provide extra support to the city’s hospitals during the year-end period.”
The same day, Tokyo reported 392 new cases — the highest so far for a Monday — bringing its total to 51,838 infections and 566 deaths.
The capital has reported 10,899 cases so far in December, logging over 10,000 in a single month for the first time. Nationwide, the country saw nearly 2,500 new infections on Sunday. To date, Tokyo and Osaka together account for about a third of total cases across the country.
With days left until year-end, officials are concerned a prolonged peak will overburden the health care system during the holidays, a time of the year when hospitals often have limited staffing under normal circumstances.
As new cases continue to emerge across the country and hospital beds set aside for COVID-19 patients become increasingly scarce, health care facilities are being pushed to their limits. There is concern the trend could soon disrupt normal operations and treatments for patients with health conditions unrelated to the novel coronavirus.
According to data released Friday by the health ministry, nearly half of the capital’s 4,000 hospital beds set aside for COVID-19 patients were occupied as of Wednesday last week.
The same data shows more than half of COVID-19 beds were also occupied in Hokkaido and the prefectures of Gunma, Saitama, Aichi, Mie and Kochi.
In Osaka Prefecture, 65% of COVID-19 hospital beds were in use, while 71% were occupied in Hyogo Prefecture.
On Thursday, Koike raised the capital’s health care alert to its fourth and highest level, signaling alarm just hours before the city reported a record-breaking 822 new cases.
It was the first time Tokyo reached the highest level of alert for its health care system, indicating that officials and experts on the metropolitan government’s task force believe hospitals are being overwhelmed and could soon struggle to provide treatment to patients other than those infected with COVID-19.
As leaders outside the largest urban areas brace for the anticipated return of many for the New Year’s holiday, the ongoing surge of COVID-19 has already forced the central government to peel back major economic measures meant to rescue the economy from a prolonged recession caused by the pandemic.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced last week that the Go To Travel campaign, the central government’s ¥1.35 trillion effort to boost domestic travel, would be suspended nationwide from Dec. 28 to Jan. 11.
Local businesses — namely karaoke bars and food establishments that serve alcohol — in the country’s metropolitan areas have been asked to reduce operations in the same period.
In a proposal drafted during a virtual meeting Sunday, members of the National Governors Association (NGA) urged the central government to put forward a plan for what to do with the travel campaign after the suspension expires on Jan. 11.
The NGA suggested the campaign be reinstated incrementally, first in regions where the virus appears to have calmed or slowed, to allow local businesses and domestic travel to resume.
“Regarding how to handle the campaign after Jan. 12, the government will need to assess the situation when the time comes in order for it to respond appropriately,” Kato said Monday. “Meanwhile, it’s crucial that people practice the utmost caution in celebrating New Year. We must do everything we can to avoid a state of emergency.”