Japan’s coronavirus “third wave” is putting increasing stress on the country’s medical system. Hospital bed occupancy has reached 60-70%, and there have been a string of cases of people dying from COVID-19 at home after being unable to find a hospital to take them.
The third wave is already filling more beds in Tokyo and Osaka than their local governments had projected, and yet they have not revamped their plans to guarantee enough hospital places for COVID-19 patients. They were also late to set up a system to send doctors and nurses to where they are most needed.
There had long been worries of an infection spike in the winter months. Government policy, however, focused on trying to deal with the pandemic and economic stimulus at the same time, leading to a late response and more people in hospital.
The Japanese government bears a heavy responsibility for inviting this outcome.
Private hospitals make up 70% of the total across Japan. There has been little progress, however, on getting COVID-19 patients into these institutions. To strengthen the medical system overall, there needs to be a plan in place to make efficient use of the country’s medical resources.
To implement thorough anti-infection measures, regional hospitals need to be divided clearly into COVID-19 treatment centers and those for other patients. The government ought to lead this policy, such that there is effective cooperation among university, public and private hospitals.
The cities would seem to have the option of designating their public hospitals as coronavirus treatment centers, as metropolitan Tokyo has done. It is then essential to provide fine-tuned support to these institutions’ other patients thus forced to look elsewhere for their medical care. Furthermore, to increase the number of beds for moderate COVID-19 cases, there needs to be a system in place for the smooth transfer of those whose condition turns severe to other institutions.
Measures also need to be beefed up to catch the sudden deterioration of COVID-19 patients recuperating at home or designated lodgings. We hope to see a full-press effort by local governments on this front, including programs to lend out blood-oxygen measurement equipment.
The central government is planning to revise Japan’s infectious disease control law to allow prefectural governors to advise medical facilities to accept coronavirus patients. Facilities that refuse could have their names announced publicly.
However, how much effort has the government put into laying the groundwork to get these institutions’ cooperation? We have misgivings about the thinking behind any system that relies on coercion.
There have been confirmed domestic transmissions of a coronavirus variant first found in Britain, presenting a real risk of a precipitous case spike. To prevent Japan’s medical system from falling to bits, failing patients who could otherwise be saved, the government must explore every potential method at its disposal.