TOKYO -- Japan will restrict hospital admissions of COVID-19 patients to those who are seriously ill, or at risk of becoming so, as surging coronavirus cases strain the health care system.
The turnaround from an earlier policy that had accommodated a broader swath of high-risk patients came the same day that the government expanded a state of emergency beyond Tokyo and Okinawa to three neighboring prefectures and Osaka, casting a shadow over the ongoing Olympics.
"We will secure the necessary beds" to ensure severe and at-risk cases can be admitted, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said.
"Recovery at home will be the standard for others, and we will set up a system so they can be hospitalized right away if their condition gets worse," he said. Those who cannot self-isolate at home will be allowed to stay in designated lodgings.
The spread of COVID-19 has accelerated since the emergency declaration in Tokyo three weeks ago. The virus' reproduction rate was estimated at 1.41 in Tokyo as of late July -- the level last seen in mid-January. If this rate holds, daily cases in Tokyo alone could rise from around 3,000 now to more than 10,000 in late August.
Daily infections nationwide more than doubled on Sunday from a week earlier.
The surge has been driven by the highly infectious delta variant, which some data suggests may cause more serious illness among those in their 40s and 50s than the original version of the coronavirus.
"Delta's contagiousness is beyond comparison," warned Tottori Gov. Shinji Hirai at a governors' conference on Sunday. "The vaccination rate is still at 30%, far short of containing the current explosive outbreak," he said.
In discussing limiting hospital admissions, Suga said Monday that an antibody combination treatment will be made available to nonhospitalized patients, who are now excluded from receiving it.
"We will administer it actively to people in their 50s and older and those with underlying conditions," the prime minister said.
The health ministry on July 19 granted emergency authorization to Roche unit Chugai Pharmaceutical to produce and sell the two-antibody cocktail developed by U.S.-based Regeneron Pharmaceutical with Roche. The treatment, delivered via IV drip, is intended to keep mild and moderate cases from worsening.
The government will hold discussions with local authorities on how to get the treatment to those recovering at home.
Prefectural governments have struggled to expand capacity, adding only 8,000 more beds since January -- when Tokyo and other areas faced a serious crunch -- to bring the total to around 36,000 in late July.