Japan’s cities scramble to move mild coronavirus patients to hotels

TOKYO — As Japan prepares for a possible explosion in coronavirus cases, big-city governments are arranging alternative accommodations for noncritical patients so hospital beds can go to those who need them most.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government looks to rent entire hotels to house patients with milder symptoms, in an attempt to avoid overwhelming the health care system. Osaka plans similar moves.

“Patient numbers are high, and the situation is extremely unpredictable,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Friday. The diversion of patients with milder symptoms to hotels begins next week.

The metropolitan government hopes to secure 1,000 extra beds from the hotel operators. Police dormitories under construction for the now-delayed Tokyo Olympics also might be used.

Japan’s health ministry supports these efforts. It issued a notice dated Thursday urging coronavirus patients with mild or no symptoms to stay at home or at facilities designated by local governments. Under Japan’s infectious diseases law, patients carrying highly contagious illnesses are generally recommended to remain at hospitals.

The latest notice gives local governments greater discretion over their coronavirus response, without having to consult first with the ministry. High-risk patients like seniors, pregnant women and those with underlying conditions are still encouraged to stay at hospitals even if they present only mild symptoms.

Hospitals in Japan’s major cities are already at or near capacity from the coronavirus. Roughly 700 people were hospitalized in Tokyo as of Friday, taking up most of the 750 beds in the area equipped to deal with the outbreak.

An infectious diseases ward in Osaka: Japan’s cities want specialized facilities to be able to focus on patients who are critically or severely ill. (Photo by Maho Obata)

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said Friday that he will prioritize hospital space for patients with more serious symptoms.

“We currently have dedicated wards for coronavirus patients, but we will soon be able to divert some patients to hotels,” he said. Yoshimura looks to place in hotels patients who have mild symptoms but live with high-risk individuals.

Osaka Prefecture confirmed 35 new cases Friday, bringing its total to 346. The area has a high rate of untraceable infections as well as a high rate of positives. The local government has secured 600 beds but plans eventually to have 3,000, including 300 for patients in critical condition.

Aichi Prefecture, home to the city of Nagoya, is opening a 100-bed facility dedicated to patients with mild symptoms.

The prefecture took in patients from the Diamond Princess cruise ship at an unopened hospital in February. Asymptomatic individuals were released relatively quickly at the time, leading experts to call for a dedicated facility for such patients so resources could be focused on the critically ill.

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