Firms with workers in overseas areas affected by severe acute respiratory syndrome have been flooding a health ministry hotline with requests for advice on how to deal with the outbreak, hotline workers said Friday.

Since opening April 9, the Labor Welfare Corp.’s Japan Overseas Health Administration Center hotline has received nearly 300 calls, the center said.

With growing concerns over the spread of SARS, firms are having to deal with workers returning from regions such as China and Hong Kong, which have been hardest hit by the virus.

SARS has infected over 5,800 and resulted in 413 deaths as of Friday.

The Yokohama-based health center, under the jurisdiction of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, said the number of phone consultations has risen threefold from early last month.

According to the center, most inquiries were initially about infection prevention, but starting around April 20, when China dramatically revised upward the number of SARS-affected people in Beijing, the calls mostly centered on returning workers.

After the ministry requested that travelers from China and Hong Kong limit contact with people for about 10 days upon arrival in Japan, several major firms began mulling allowing workers to stay at home after returning from SARS-hit areas.

Takashimaya Co. has no plans yet to have its workers overseas return home, but said it will have them stand by at their homes for a certain period of time if they do, and is studying how long they will need to rest if they are instructed to return.

Ito-Yokado Co. is expected to let its workers stay at home for 10 days, while for Kanebo Ltd. it will likely be a week.

Hitachi Zosen Corp. and Mitsui & Co. said they are not considering such measures, with Mitsui saying the government has not told them to stop employees from reporting to work. Nippon Steel Corp. and World Co., meanwhile, are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Girding for outbreak

More than 1,000 beds have been secured in hospitals nationwide, and almost all prefectures have prepared action plans for a possible outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, according to a recent Kyodo News survey.

According to the survey, 1,020 beds have been prepared in 198 hospitals nationwide to receive confirmed sufferers of the SARS virus.

Among the 1,020 beds, 599 are in low air-pressure sickrooms that prevent the virus from escaping, according to the survey.

Forty-four of the nation’s 47 prefectures said they have designated action plans, including ways to deal with SARS patients and preventive measures for in-hospital infections. However, Fukui, Aichi and Mie prefectures did not clearly state which hospitals SARS patients would be taken to, and Ibaraki, Niigata and Toyama prefectures said they will come up with plans by early next week.

Around half of the prefectures said they are preparing special ambulances equipped with isolation devices or are planning to use such ambulances after taking infection prevention measures.

The World Health Organization earlier released guidelines to prevent the spread of the disease, including a recommendation to designate hospitals equipped with “negative pressure” facilities to prevent the SARS pathogen from escaping hospitals.

Only 12 hospitals in nine prefectures meet the WHO guidelines. These are the “designated medical institutions for category 1 infectious diseases” established under the 1999 infectious disease prevention law.

Patients with lower grade SARS infections in the remaining 80 percent of prefectures that do not have category 1 hospitals will be sent instead to medical institutions, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Such institutions have been instructed by the ministry to develop action plans and set up isolated sickrooms.

The ministry said Japan has now prepared the bare minimum of medical services to combat the disease and intends to beef up its plans by conducting workshop for medical workers.

Reprieve for Chinese?

KOBE (Kyodo) A business body in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, will ask immigration authorities to allow 12 Chinese to stay in Japan even after their visas expire in May due to the SARS epidemic in China.

The Chinese, who would like to stay in Japan longer because of the threat of the dangerous virus, all come from Taiyuan in Shanxi Province, eastern China.

The World Health Organization has warned against traveling to the province because it has many cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

According to the Himeji Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Chinese have been in Japan for one to three years to take part in industrial training.

The chamber and the Himeji Municipal Government will ask the Osaka Immigration Bureau as next week to allow them to overstay their visas at the request of the trainees and the corporations and facilities that trained them.

The chamber has already expressed its intention to accommodate them until the WHO advisory is lifted.