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Hospitals In Japan Are Overwhelmed By COVID-19 Surge

NOEL KING, HOST:

Japan announced today that it is extending a state of emergency across parts of the country in order to try and get COVID-19 infections down. Many hospitals in Japan are overwhelmed, and some patients have even died waiting for ICU beds. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Dr. Toshiyaki Inamura is something of a rarity in Japan. In a country where most folks go to hospitals for medical care, he makes house calls from his clinic. He describes a recent visit to elderly patients living in a nursing home.

TOSHIYAKI INAMURA: (Through interpreter) There were 18 patients suffering from dementia, and 15 of them were infected with COVID. It was already totally impossible to get them hospitalized, so everybody had to stay in the facility.

KUHN: Inamura says the nursing home lacked adequate ventilators and staff to operate them.

INAMURA: (Through interpreter) Two of them became very serious. And several days later, they found a hospital, but it was on the outskirts of Tokyo, and one of them didn't make it.

KUHN: According to Japan's health ministry, more than 35,000 COVID patients are staying at home, many of them turned away from hospitals which have run out of beds. That number has quadrupled over the last month. National broadcaster NHK reports that nearly 200 COVID patients have died at home, based on figures from police. In Parliament last week, an opposition lawmaker asked Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga if he felt responsible for these deaths.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER YOSHIHIDE SUGA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "As the one in charge, I feel terribly sorry," he replied. "We have not been able to provide the necessary care. And I recognize that because of this, the Japanese people are feeling anxious." Japan has a high ratio of hospital beds to population compared to other countries, but a relative shortage of ICU beds. Dr. Hideaki Oka is an infectious disease expert at the Saitama Medical University just outside Tokyo. He says his hospital is overwhelmed and has to ration care.

HIDEAKI OKA: (Through interpreter) We have four ICU beds for severe cases, and all are occupied by COVID patients. The severe cases are occupying beds for patients with moderate symptoms in the regular ward, so we can't take any more patients.

KUHN: Oka says Japanese hospitals also lack ICU and infectious disease specialist doctors. And while Japan's national health insurance keeps health care costs affordable, he adds, hospitals are losing money the more COVID patients they take.

OKA: (Through interpreter) Our staff are now battling this COVID situation without breaks and with lots of stress. I'm afraid more of them will leave their jobs if the situation continues. Japan's health care system is going to be destroyed by human resource and finance problems.

KUHN: Oka says he and other experts warned last fall that a third wave of infections was coming in November, but the government was busy subsidizing tourism and dining out. They didn't suspend the subsidies until case numbers exploded last month. Today, the government announced that it will extend the state of emergency for another month. It's now due to end March 7, just 18 days before the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympic torch relay.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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