TOKYO (JAPAN) – As Japan missed opportunities to coordinate coronavirus testing and secure hospital beds before the third pandemic wave hit, health officials, doctors and experts point out that these missteps have hampered its response as winter set in.
Though during initial stages of the pandemic Japan stood out for containing infections while avoiding the strict lockdowns, the third wave has hit them hard. Daily infections hit a record 2,447 in Tokyo last week and authorities this month launched a second state of emergency.
More than a dozen doctors, experts and health officials told, authorities were slow to expand testing and said officials still lack real-time data on testing numbers. That raises questions about Japan’s grasp of its own testing capabilities, just months before the planned Olympics.
“The bottom line is that the Japanese government underestimated the potential impact of coronavirus infections,” said Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease expert.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s ratings have plunged over his handling of the crisis and polls show about 80% of people believe the Olympics should be cancelled or delayed.
Doctors on the frontlines say the winter surge was all too predictable. Three doctors working in large, Tokyo-area hospitals said beds were full for weeks and staff were at breaking point.
The government cannot mandate private hospitals to take in virus patients and many say they are unable to, according to a health ministry survey.
Officials allocated 269.3 billion yen ($2.6 billion) in subsidies in December to hospitals willing to take in virus patients. That was months too late, doctors said.
About 81% of hospital beds in Tokyo designated for virus patients were occupied as of January 13, with 3,266 coronavirus patients hospitalised. Patients requiring ventilators and other breathing equipment have doubled to 141 in four weeks.
“They were too slow to prepare,” said Yoshihiro Masui of Yokohama City Seibu Hospital, adding that 96 percent of hospital beds for critical patients in Yokohama were already occupied.
“They need to think bigger and prepare now because we will be overrun.”