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As a heat wave continues to grip much of Japan and send thousands to hospitals with heat-related illnesses, medical workers worry that the similarity of symptoms to COVID-19 may put extra pressure on a health care system already creaking under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of people showing signs of heatstroke or heat exhaustion has sharply increased recently. Temperatures soared to 41.1 in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Monday, tying the national record marked in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, in 2018.

"There are times when we can't immediately tell apart (those suffering from heat-related illness and COVID-19) when a (patient) is feeling unwell with a high fever because it's a symptom they have in common," said Yasufumi Miyake, head of the advanced emergency medical service center at Teikyo University Hospital in Tokyo.

Miyake said treatment must take into account both COVID-19 and heat-related illnesses when staff can't rule out the possibility of a coronavirus infection.

"There is a risk that the medical system will collapse" if this situation continues, he added.

Amid fears that wearing masks against the virus might contribute to the problem, 12,804 people were taken to hospitals nationwide between Aug. 10 and Aug. 16 for heat-related illnesses, up from 6,664 the previous week, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

In central Tokyo, the death toll from heatstroke or heat exhaustion this month stood at 79 as of Tuesday, compared with zero through July. Of the fatalities, 73, or about 90 percent, were 60 or older, according to the Tokyo Medical Examiner's Office.

While scorching weather has been a problem in recent years amid global warming, experts have suggested that the longer-than-usual rainy season this year, particularly the overcast skies, made it harder for people to physically adjust to the sudden rise in temperatures this month.

During the rainy season, many regions saw days of cloudy skies in July, making it difficult to gradually acclimate to the hotter weather this month, they said.

Hiroyuki Kusaka, a professor of meteorology at the University of Tsukuba, said the recent heat wave has been caused by two high-pressure systems overlapping Japan.

To prevent the risk of heat-related illness, Miyake emphasized the need to keep cool and hydrated. He especially urged people to take "extra care" of the elderly, who are considered the most vulnerable to the heat.

People should not only urge seniors to turn on air conditioning but also check up on whether they have done so, he said.

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