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Coronavirus

Nurses from defense forces to help Japan city fight pandemic

Municipality on Hokkaido suffers staff shortage in uptick of coronavirus cases

A hospital treatment room in Japan. The northernmost main island of Hokkaido has seen an upsurge in coronavirus cases.   © Reuters

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The government decided to dispatch around 10 nurses from the Ground Self-Defense Force to two medical facilities in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, as the northern Japan city faces a shortage of health care workers due to a recent spike in coronavirus infections, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said Tuesday.

Large cities in Hokkaido as well as urban areas like Tokyo and Osaka have been seeing a rise in coronavirus infections since October and their hospital beds and lodging facilities provided for patients have been increasingly occupied, raising concerns about a possible collapse of the health care system.

Japan on Tuesday saw a record 47 coronavirus deaths, raising the country's death toll to 2,458.

Kishi said the chief of the GSDF Northern Army has issued the order for the nurses' dispatch, requested by Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki earlier in the day.

The nurses, who will be dispatched for a maximum of two weeks, will assist local medical staff in duties such as checking body temperatures and taking care of hospitalized patients, Kishi said.

Asahikawa, with a population of some 330,000, confirmed Tuesday 50 new virus infections, a record daily figure, and six deaths attributed to the COVID-19 respiratory disease.

The central Hokkaido city has recently seen a series of cluster infections, including at some main hospitals. As of Tuesday, 67 percent of hospital beds in the city for COVID-19 patients were occupied, after a total of about 440 people have contracted the virus at two hospitals.

"I have decided to (request the dispatch of nurses) to save Hokkaido people's lives and overcome difficulties with the help of SDF personnel," Suzuki said in a statement.

On Monday, Asahikawa Mayor Masahito Nishikawa told a news conference he has asked the Hokkaido government to request the dispatch of 10 SDF nurses as the city is in a "critical situation."

But Katsunobu Kato, Japan's top government spokesman, told a separate press conference Tuesday that Hokkaido is not currently in a situation where a state of emergency needs to be declared.

Meanwhile, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura has made a similar request to the Defense Ministry.

The Osaka prefectural government said Tuesday more than 70 percent of beds reserved for patients showing serious COVID-19 symptoms are now occupied, meaning the prefecture faces an imminent risk of its capacity to treat such patients being overwhelmed.

On Tuesday, Osaka saw 258 new infections and nine deaths. The number of severe COVID-19 cases in the prefecture stood at 146.

The ministry has been assisting local governments in their response to the pandemic based on requests from governors, sending SDF personnel to places such as Okinawa, where the health care system was strained in August.

SDF members were also deployed between February and March to disinfect the inside of the virus-hit Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama near Tokyo, and support other relief efforts.

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