TOKYO, Nov. 12 (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday set out an urgent plan to increase hospital beds and medical resources in preparation for a possible resurgence of COVID-19 infections this winter.
After a deadly fifth wave of infections nearly overwhelmed the medical system over the summer, infections and deaths have fallen dramatically as vaccinations have increased to cover more than 70% of the population.
Emergency measures for most of the country were lifted last month, but health experts warn that cases are likely to recover, like last winter in Japan. In anticipation of this, the government plans to increase the capacity of hospital beds by about 30%, strengthen home care and collect data to predict which hospitals will come under pressure.
“At the same time as strengthening the medical system, from December onward, IT systems will be used to make public the number of hospital beds and conditions in each hospital,” Kishida told reporters.
Earlier this week, Kishida said the “trump card” in the government’s pandemic battle was the procurement of oral treatments that could avoid the need for hospitalization.
Japan will pay approximately $1.2 billion to Merck & Co Inc (MRK.N) for 1.6 million courses of the COVID-19 antiviral pill molnupiravir, under terms announced Wednesday.
That’s about half of the supply insured by the United States and compares to a total of 1.7 million coronavirus cases in Japan since the start of the pandemic. read more
Meanwhile, vaccine booster shots will begin next month, and the government is considering extending immunizations to children as young as five. read more
Japan has weathered the pandemic better than many other countries, with just over 18,000 deaths so far and without imposing strict lockdowns.
But the government has faced strong criticism over a spate of home deaths among patients due to hospitals’ inability to handle the outbreak of cases over the summer. Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga resigned in September for his handling of the crisis.
To prevent the bed shortage, the Department of Health has implemented a system that uses past and present infection data to predict when and where medical resources will come under pressure.
“A sixth wave is a matter of when rather than if,” said Yuki Furuse, a professor at Kyoto University who developed the predictive tool.
“Since the current situation in Japan is calm, it seems okay to lift some restrictions now. However, I am concerned if people can go back to a ‘voluntary state of self-control’ when needed,” he added.
(This story has been resaved to correct typos in the second paragraph)
Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore
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