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The Tokyo metropolitan area’s health care system is rapidly becoming strained, as a shortage of medical staff is making it increasingly difficult for hospitals and quarantine facilities to take in more people with COVID-19.

Following a monthslong drive to increase hospital beds and quarantine facilities for COVID-19 patients, securing enough staff to treat and monitor them seems to have fallen by the wayside.

As a result, the system meant to alleviate pressure on hospitals is beginning to fail, and an increasing number of patients are given little choice but to isolate at home, where they risk infecting the people they live with.

“It may appear that Tokyo has much more space for COVID-19 patients but that’s not the case,” Masataka Inokuchi, vice president of the Tokyo Medical Association and an adviser to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, said Thursday.

Inokuchi said the city will prepare 36 hospital beds for infected individuals who can’t find a hospital able to provide treatment.

“Issues surrounding staff shortages, as well as the transportation and admission of COVID-19 patients, are causing confusion on the ground,” he said. “The health care system has reached a state of serious dysfunction.”

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike leaves the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building on Thursday evening. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike leaves the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building on Thursday evening. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has prepared 6,240 rooms across 16 empty hotels repurposed as temporary facilities for mild or asymptomatic patients who need to isolate but don’t require hospitalization. Officials say half of those rooms are operational but only about 1,800 can be utilized with the staff currently on hand.

As of Thursday, 1,762 rooms were occupied.

The same day, Tokyo saw record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 patients isolating at home, hospitalized patients and those suffering from serious symptoms.

Including those awaiting admission to a hospital, there are more than 60,000 individuals isolating at home across Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, which together comprise most of the capital region.

“The city is having difficulty securing more nurses to work at temporary quarantine facilities,” a city official told reporters Thursday evening. “We’ve sent requests to medical facilities as well as employee dispatch companies, but between these hotels and the country’s many vaccine sites, the demand for nurses is incredibly high.”

As the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through the metropolitan region and several other parts of the country, what began as an outbreak consisting mostly of young people is spreading more broadly among different age groups. Patients suffering from severe symptoms are increasing as well.

Journalists join a tour in April last year of a Toyoko Inn in Tokyo, the first hotel in the capital to begin taking in mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 patients. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Journalists join a tour in April last year of a Toyoko Inn in Tokyo, the first hotel in the capital to begin taking in mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 patients. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

In a bid to lighten the pressure on hospitals, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced earlier this month that the central government would, in principle, prioritize severe or high-risk patients by asking people experiencing moderate symptoms to isolate themselves at home.

Days later, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government adopted a similar policy shift intended to prioritize and streamline the hospitalization of severely ill COVID-19 patients.

The central government’s announcement was met with swift opposition, with many citing concerns that mild and moderate patients can suddenly and unexpectedly develop severe symptoms, and that asking them to isolate at home could delay potentially life-saving treatment.

Over the past week, media reports have emerged of infected individuals in the capital region who died while isolating at home or were forced to find treatment outside Tokyo after they couldn’t find a hospital willing to take them in.

On Wednesday, the capital reported two deaths linked to COVID-19, one of which was a man in his 30s with no pre-existing conditions who died earlier this month while isolating at home. He was the third individual to have died while self-quarantining since the fifth wave of the pandemic abruptly began to escalate in late July.

The ongoing surge in new cases isn’t just overwhelming hospitals and quarantine facilities with new patients. It’s also forcing emergency first responders to deal with an unprecedented number of calls from individuals seeking hospitalization.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said Wednesday that between Aug. 2 and Sunday, 2,897 cases had been reported in which first responders had difficulty finding a medical facility willing to take in the patient. Of those cases, 1,387 — or 48% — were individuals thought to be infected with COVID-19, which was the first time the agency has seen more than 1,000 such cases.

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