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Coronavirus

Japan's COVID-19 third wave clogs hospitals' capacity for care

Cancer ward shut and expectant mothers sent elsewhere amid nurse shortages

A doctor at a hospital in Yokohama. Some medical facilities in Japan are being forced to make hard trade-offs to deal with surging coronavirus cases.   © Reuters

OSAKA/ASAHIKAWA, Japan -- Japanese hospitals in areas hit hard by the coronavirus have been forced to suspend care for cancer and other conditions as they deal with a wave of new COVID-19 cases.

Osaka Prefecture on Thursday issued a "red alert" on its scale of the pandemic's severity, urging residents to avoid unnecessary trips outside their homes.

The move shows how Japan's coronavirus pandemic experience -- though less grim than that of many Western nations and such Asian hot spots such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines -- is becoming serious enough to threaten local shortages of hospital beds and health care workers.

"The strain on medical care is serious, and it is particularly dire on beds for severe cases," Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura told a meeting of his COVID-19 task force. "This is a situation where we can rightly declare a health emergency."

Osaka's red alert is supposed to be triggered when 70% or more of its hospital beds dedicated to seriously ill COVID-19 patients are occupied. On Thursday, 66% were filled, but the pressure on the health care system was high enough for the local government to call on residents to exercise caution.

Japan has recorded more than 155,000 COVID-19 cases and at least 2,174 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

Osaka Prefecture, home to the nation's third-largest city, reported 386 new cases on Thursday. The day before, the number was 427 -- the third-highest number to date.

The prefecture currently has a total of 206 beds for severe coronavirus cases. Expanding this number has been a challenge, given the limited number of doctors and nurses available. Increasing beds for COVID-19 sufferers means reducing them for other patients.

In response to the rising cases, Osaka City General Hospital will temporarily close down its cancer ward for those aged 15 to 39, diverting the roughly 20 nurses there to coronavirus patients.

The cancer patients will be transferred to a different ward. "We have put the necessary measures in place to ensure high-level care," a representative from the hospital said.

Asahikawa, a city of around 340,000 on the northern island of Hokkaido, saw COVID-19 infection clusters at two of its major hospitals. One of them, Asahikawa-Kosei General Hospital, has stopped seeing outpatients for the time being.

Other major hospitals in the area are picking up the slack on holiday and nighttime visits, as well as procedures that cannot be postponed like child births, to minimize the impact on patients.

Japanese Red Cross Asahikawa Hospital is scheduled to handle four times as many births in December than usual. "We can only keep this up for a month, and even then we're stretching our limits in terms of staff capacity," said Kenichi Makino, who heads the hospital.

Other facilities across Japan are also bracing for the new wave of infections. Sapporo City General Hospital has stopped seeing new patients as a general rule, while the Kobe City Medical Center General Hospital is downsizing intensive care units for non-coronavirus patients.

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