The latest surge in COVID-19 cases across Japan shows no signs of subsiding.
Health experts advising the Tokyo metropolitan government on responses to the novel coronavirus described the situation as “out of control” during an Aug. 12 monitoring conference. One expert warned that the city’s health care system is now “seriously dysfunctional” due to the galloping health crisis.
Both the central and metropolitan governments share the blame for this disastrous turn of events. While forging ahead with the Tokyo Olympics with unwarranted optimism, both administrations did a poor job of bolstering policy efforts to save lives. They have no time to waste in acting swiftly to upgrade and expand their capabilities to deal with the challenge. It is especially urgent to increase the capacity of hotels designated to accommodate patients who are not seriously ill.
Figures show that about 60,000 people infected with the virus are being forced to stay home in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures, including those waiting for admission to hospitals or hotels rented by local governments to isolate and monitor patients with no or mild symptoms. The metropolitan government says it has secured 6,000 hotel rooms for this purpose, but only half of them can actually be used to accommodate COVID-19 patients. The number of patients currently staying at these hotel rooms is now about 1,800. The metropolitan government has a duty to thoroughly explain the reasons for this large gulf and its plans to fill them.
Asymptomatic or mildly ill patients are supposed to stay at designated hotels where their condition is monitored by health care workers until they recover. Last week, however, the central government abruptly announced a new policy requiring patients that do not need to be hospitalized to stay at home in principle in areas where new cases are surging.
Although the government added that designated hotels will be used in cases where the patient may transmit the virus to other family members, the sudden policy shift appears to be tantamount to green lighting a situation where many such patients have no choice but to stay at home.
The spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has increased cases of transmission within families. The best outcome is for patients who are not seriously ill to stay at hotels designated by the authorities where health care workers are always available. This holds true even for those who live alone. The only exceptions are those who have young children and cannot stay away from home.
This approach allows swift responses to any significant deterioration of a patient’s health condition. These accommodation facilities could also be used for safe and efficient administration of antibody cocktails, a monoclonal antibody treatment that is currently applied to hospitalized patients and to those who are not seriously ill.
Some local administrations are taking steps to enhance their programs to allow patients to stay at designated hotels.
In Osaka Prefecture, the fourth wave in early spring due to a shortage of hospital beds left a high death toll among patients forced to stay at home. Learning from this policy failure, the prefectural government maintains a policy of allowing all patients who do not need to be hospitalized to stay at hotels. It said 2,500 or so patients are currently being put up at hotels designated by the prefectural government, more than the figure for Tokyo. The local administration plans to increase the number of hotel rooms secured for this program to 6,000 from the current 4,000.
In Fukui Prefecture, all patients are either treated at hospitals or care facilities. Prefectural authorities there transformed a gymnasium into an emergency medical facility with 100 beds for COVID-19 patients.
Doctors and nurses are on hand around the clock at the facility to assist mildly ill patients. The facility is also equipped with oxygen supply devices to treat those who develop serious respiratory difficulties. Other local governments should learn from Fukui’s efforts to make more effective use of local health care resources.
A panel of experts advising the central government on its handling of the crisis called for measures to bolster the capabilities of health care systems, warning that the COVID-19 situation was approaching the level of a “natural disaster.” It said the flow of pedestrians in hot-spot areas like Tokyo must be cut in half over the next two weeks to curb the surge in cases.
Every individual needs to recognize the urgency of the situation and act accordingly.