Medical experts fear that the emergency health care system, already facing a record crisis during the seventh wave of new coronavirus infections, will be further strained during Bon’s vacation period.
As COVID-19 continues to spread in Japan, hospital beds are filling up and more infected people are calling ambulances, even if they are only suffering from minor symptoms.
During the Bon holiday, which began on August 11, clinics and outpatient hospital departments for fevers will be closed. Many people who think they have been infected will likely call ambulances for treatment.
Medical associations have called on the public to “use ambulances appropriately”. But demand for emergency services shows no signs of slowing down.
COVID-19 TESTS IN AMBULANCES
Three ambulances were parked outside the Heisei Tateishi Hospital in the Katsushika district of Tokyo on the evening of August 5.
The hospital does not accept patients with fever to avoid possible spread of the new coronavirus inside. Patients in the ambulances therefore had to take COVID-19 tests and wait in the vehicles for about an hour for the results.
A positive test result would allow the patient to enter the hospital as it is designated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as a “secondary emergency medical institution” for COVID-19 patients.
The number of requests to the hospital to accept ambulance patients soared from mid-July after Japan entered the seventh wave of infections.
The hospital normally accepts 20 to 30 ambulance patients per day. The number is now around 40.
On July 28 alone, the hospital allowed 61 ambulance patients to enter for COVID-19 treatment.
Nearly 80% of patients who use the hospital’s outpatient emergency department have a fever and could be infected with the new coronavirus or suffer from heatstroke.
However, most of them have minor symptoms and only a small number require hospitalization.
Most requests for ambulance services are made at night, when clinics in city centers or fever outpatient departments in hospitals are closed.
Heisei Tateishi Hospital has received requests to accept patients from ambulances in various areas of Tokyo, including those outside the capital’s 23 wards. A request came from the town of Kodaira, which is about 30 kilometers from the hospital.
“We are hospitalizing around 10 COVID-19 patients a day,” said Shuichi Osawa, head of the hospital. “Most people (who arrive by ambulance) have minor symptoms and can go home after being diagnosed. We are an emergency hospital, but we effectively operate as an outpatient fever service.
WAITING FOR TREATMENT
The National Center for Global Health and Medicine Central Hospital Emergency Department in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district recently tweeted a video showing a line of ambulances lining up outside the hospital.
Hospital officials said its three emergency treatment cabins for COVID-19 patients are always full, so people have to take COVID-19 tests inside the ambulances.
According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, ambulances were unable to immediately find hospital emergency care available for 6,589 patients during the week of August 1-7, a record for the second consecutive week .
In one case in the area covered by the Tokyo Fire Department, a COVID-19 patient had to wait in an ambulance for a record 35 hours and 47 minutes before arriving at a hospital that could treat him.
‘DISASTER LEVEL SITUATION’
Referring to the pressure on hospitals and emergency departments, four associations of medical scholars, including the Japan Association of Acute Medicine, issued a joint statement on how to use limited medical resources efficiently.
He advised the public to call ambulances only when they have more severe symptoms of COVID-19, such as pale skin or shortness of breath.
Osawa from Heisei Tateishi Hospital expressed his concerns about Bon’s vacation.
“Even now we have too many patients, and it’s like a dire situation,” he said. “Only a small number of hospitals in Tokyo are accepting COVID-19 patients, and no hospitals have additional capacity.”