Health care systems nationwide are expected to remain in a tough situation toward year-end, with occupancy rates for hospital beds set aside for coronavirus patients rising in many areas of the country, an expert has warned.

According to a health ministry survey, the hospital bed occupancy rate for COVID-19 patients stood at 25% or higher in 18 of the country's 47 prefectures as of Wednesday, up from 15 the week before. The result suggests that the epidemic in the 18 prefectures, mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area and the Kansai region centered around Osaka, have entered Stage 3, the second-worst level on the four-tier scale gauging the degree of the spread of the virus.

The rate rose from a week before in 28 prefectures, jumping by over 10 percentage points from Nov. 25 in the eastern prefectures of Tochigi and Gunma, and the central prefectures of Gifu and Mie to reach 39%, 43%, 32% and 50%, respectively.

Hyogo Prefecture had the highest rate among all prefectures, at 65%, although the figure was down 3 points. The rate in neighboring Osaka, which has issued its own state-of-emergency declaration over the virus, rose by one point to 56%. The rate rose 5 points to 52% in Hokkaido, where large-scale infection clusters have occurred.

The number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients across Japan hit a record high of 505 as of Friday, roughly tripling from a month before. The bed occupancy rate for patients in severe condition increased from a week before in 21 prefectures. Aichi saw its rate surge by 20 points to 43%.

As of Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms stood at five or below in 30 prefectures.

A panel of experts at the ministry pointed out at a meeting on Thursday that a rise in the number of seriously ill patients tends to follow an increase in that of people newly confirmed to have the coronavirus.

Even if the pace of growth in new infection cases slows, the number of COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms will continue rising for a while, the panel also said.

As the bed occupancy rates are based on the number of beds including those that are not immediately available, the actual situation surrounding coronavirus patient treatment at medical institutions is believed to be more severe than suggested by the figures.

"It will take more than a month for the medical care systems to regain stability even if the number of newly confirmed coronavirus cases peaks out," Satoshi Kamayachi, a member of the panel, said.

"The tough situation is expected to continue toward year-end," Kamayachi, who is also a member of the executive board of the Japan Medical Association, said, adding, "A challenge is to ensure that medical resources are distributed to institutions really in need."

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