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Hospital beds available for COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms are filling up quickly in Osaka Prefecture, with occupancy topping 60%, raising fears that doctors won’t be able to treat coronavirus patients as well as those with other diseases if the figure continues to rise.

As of Thursday, 66% of beds available for severe coronavirus patients were occupied, with the figure expected to rise to 70% by early next week, forcing Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura on Thursday to raise its virus alert level to red. Yoshimura also asked residents to refrain from nonessential outings for 12 days from Friday.

“Unless we clamp down on all infections, we won’t see a decrease in the number of serious cases. Now is the time to concentrate on putting a brake on the spread. A quick response is needed in order to minimize damage to society and the economy,” Yoshimura said Friday.

Yoshimura spoke to Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the nation’s coronavirus response, on Friday morning about the prefecture’s measures. Nishimura said the national government is concerned about the strain the medical system is under and is prepared to offer its support.

Under Osaka’s model for dealing with the coronavirus, the governor can raise the threat level to red and declare a state of emergency when 70% of available beds for patients with severe symptoms are occupied.

The Tower of the Sun in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, is lit up in red Thursday night after the prefectural government asked residents to avoid going out for nonessential reasons amid the spread of COVID-19 infections. | KYODO
The Tower of the Sun in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, is lit up in red Thursday night after the prefectural government asked residents to avoid going out for nonessential reasons amid the spread of COVID-19 infections. | KYODO

How effective the state of emergency will be in reducing the number of cases in Osaka is uncertain. Yoshimura did not explain what activities would be considered nonessential travel, saying he was leaving that decision to individual residents.

Surrounding prefectures are also worried about Osaka’s situation. In Hyogo Prefecture, where many people commute to Osaka, hospital beds for COVID-19 patients were 65% occupied as of Tuesday, although only 31% of the beds were occupied by serious cases.

On Friday, Kyoto Gov. Takatoshi Nishiwaki also called on the prefecture’s residents to avoid nonessential travel to Osaka but also said people should use their own judgment.

Governors do not have the legal authority to order people to stay at home if a state of emergency — local or national — is declared. However, they can be more specific in what they mean by nonessential travel.

Last month, as the number of coronavirus cases in Osaka was increasing, Nishiwaki called on Kyoto residents not to go to Osaka and avoid trips to Tokyo, while Nara Gov. Shogo Arai asked its residents to avoid going into neighboring Osaka for shopping and dining.

Tsutenkaku Tower in Osaka is lit up in red Thursday after the Osaka Prefectural Government asked residents to avoid going out for nonessential reasons until Dec. 15. | KYODO
Tsutenkaku Tower in Osaka is lit up in red Thursday after the Osaka Prefectural Government asked residents to avoid going out for nonessential reasons until Dec. 15. | KYODO

Those requests came after Osaka Prefecture called on dining and drinking establishments in the city’s Kita and Chuo wards to shut down between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Restaurants are being asked to limit group parties to less than five people for two hours maximum.

While prefectural schools will remain open under the state of emergency, some school activities will be curtailed, especially sports and music activities involving large groups.

The threat level will remain at red until Dec. 15. But with the number of cases rising, there is concern whether that might be too short to stop the spread, even as worries persist about the economic damage entailed by an extension of the red alert until the end of the year or beyond.

Doing so would create headaches for those with travel plans for the New Year’s holiday, forcing them to make tough decisions on whether to cancel their plans.

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