The health care system remains overloaded but signs of hope are emerging thanks to a dropoff in COVID-19 cases and public compliance with emergency stay-home requests, medical experts helping the government’s coronavirus panel say.

The panel said on Friday that the medical system remains under significant strain in certain prefectures and steps must be taken to prevent a full-scale collapse.

Although coronavirus cases have declined overall in the past few weeks, how much that trend can ease the burden on hospitals is likely to be limited, the panel concluded.

Akifumi Imamura, an expert in infectious diseases who serves as an observer to the panel, told a news conference that even though new patients are dwindling, the fact remains that the seriously or critically ill must be hospitalized for the long haul and will continue to occupy beds, all while requiring intense medical attention. Those initially thought to have minor cases of the disease caused by the virus could easily take a drastic turn for the worse, he added.

“So the burden is still there, and it’s not going away anytime soon,” he said.

Still, Imamura said the decline in infections is an encouraging sign things are improving, however slowly.

The downward trend, coupled with a recent change in health policy that allows hotels to help by hosting patients with mild symptoms, can “give medical workers breathing space and make it easier for them to give the best possible treatment to critically ill patients that require urgent attention,” he said.

“That’s the biggest sign of hope I see now.”

“With the bit of a breather that we have, we want to save as many patients in critical condition as possible,” Imamura said.

Coronavirus panel member Shigeru Omi echoed Imamura’s view.

“It’s the first time since the end of the war that we as a nation have cooperated this much, I think,” Omi said, referring to the public’s abidance with the isolation requests he credits for Japan’s relatively low official infection numbers.

Although the revised flu-response legislation lacks the authority to impose the same kind of citywide lockdowns seen overseas, “the fact that we have been able to curb, if not drastically, what was shaping up to be an upward trend without resorting to these kinds of lockdown measures is a fairly positive thing to come out of all this, I think,” he said.

“Needless to say, we do need to ask for continued cooperation, however,” Omi added.

What is needed to forestall the disintegration of the health care system is for each prefecture to assign hospitals under their jurisdiction to different roles that will allow some to concentrate on critical patients and secure accommodations for the mildly ill instead of forcibly hospitalizing them, the panel said.

The government also needs to further boost its capacity for conducting polymerase chain reaction tests and procure more personal protective equipment for medical professionals to clamp down on in-hospital infections, the coronavirus panel added.

In Tokyo, although the daily number of infections fell overall this week, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government revealed that nine people died of COVID-19 on Wednesday — the capital’s highest single-day death toll to date.

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