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Elderly care facilities in Japan are struggling to prevent mass infections of the novel coronavirus among residents and others, with a nursing home in Hokkaido seeing around 70 percent of residents getting the virus.

At Barato Acacia Heights care home in Sapporo, the cumulative number of residents who have been confirmed with the virus stood at 71 as of Saturday, of whom 15 have died.

According to the facility operator, Sapporo Keiyukai, the first infection among residents was confirmed on April 26. By then, several residents had fevers and other symptoms, prompting the Sapporo public health center to declare two days later that a cluster of infections had occurred at the facility.

But the facility faced delays in finding hospitals that would accept the infected residents, with work to transport them starting on May 12, more than two weeks after the first confirmation.

“If the transportation had begun a little earlier, some people would not have had to die,” an official of Sapporo Keiyukai said. It is believed that the condition of some infected residents became serious while they were waiting to be hospitalized.

The nursing home sought to isolate infected residents from those who did not have the virus by locating the former group on the first floor and the latter on the second floor.

Concerns over infection risks led to several staff members resigning, however, forcing the remaining personnel to take care of both groups. According to the staff, a resident with dementia was found roaming between the first and second floors.

One factor causing mass infections at elderly facilities is the difficulty of avoiding the use of confined, crowded environments with close contact, the three key conditions that experts say increase coronavirus infection risks, with each room shared by several residents.

At the Sapporo facility, the virus is also believed to have been transmitted through staff members, as some residents need help from caregivers to eat and use the toilet. In addition, many residents had underlying conditions, resulting in increases in deaths and cases in which those infected saw their conditions become severe.

The virus spread rapidly also due to delays in transporting residents who tested positive for it.

The government has instructed facilities for seniors across the country to hospitalize all infected elderly people in principle. A scarcity of medical institutions capable of accepting coronavirus patients in Sapporo, however, held up the facility’s efforts to do this.

“There was a severe shortage of beds for inpatients at medical institutions in the city between late April and early May, so the Sapporo nursing home had difficulties making necessary adjustments for hospitalizing infected residents,” Sapporo Mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto later explained at a news conference.

The difficulty of transporting infected residents to medical institutions also worsened the situation.

“Elderly people who are suddenly moved from the familiar environment of care facilities to unfamiliar medical institutions could become confused and turn violent,” Health Sciences University of Hokkaido professor Yoko Tsukamoto, who has visited the facility, said. “There is a need to station infectious disease experts permanently at elderly care facilities.”

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