SDF called in as Hokkaido struggles with cluster infections

A series of cluster infections in the northern Japanese city of Asahikawa has stretched the medical system there to breaking point. Members of the Self-Defense Forces have been sent to help.

Japan’s defense minister dispatched SDF medical personnel to the Hokkaido city on Tuesday. The teams will work there through December 21. This is the fourth time the government has called on the SDF to help fight the pandemic.

Asahikawa Kosei General Hospital has reported 230 positive cases among staff and patients in the last three weeks.

“All our routine work has stopped,” said one of the hospital's doctors on condition of anonymity. “The medical network here has been paralyzed, and the nurses are mostly exhausted.”

Yamashita Hirohisa, chair of the city's medical association, told NHK that local hospitals are on the verge of collapse.

“If we have another cluster infection, we may have to close our ERs and stop treatments for cancer and heart disease,” he said.

A hospital in Asahikawa
Infection clusters have been confirmed at hospitals and welfare institutions across Asahikawa City.

Osaka hospitals under pressure

Osaka Prefecture is also experiencing a medical-care crisis. One nurse there says the latest wave of infections is affecting the demographic that needs the most care.

“The patients were mostly young during the second wave, and they didn't need to be put on oxygen,” she says. “But with this third wave, we have more elderly people with respiratory problems, and they need intensive care. I'm extremely tired.”

The prefecture will open a new critical care center for seriously ill COVID-19 patients next week. It will have 30 beds, all equipped with ventilators. When running at capacity, it will require a staff of 130 nurses, but as of Monday, the government had secured only 80.

So the Defense Ministry is preparing to send SDF nurses to Osaka, too. But minister Kishi Nobuo told reporters that this response has its limits.

“The ministry will try to provide as many medical workers as possible, but it will be extremely difficult to accept all requests from local governments.”

Osaka's new COVID-19 Critical Care Center
Osaka's new COVID-19 Critical Care Center wants 130 nurses but had only secured 80 as of Monday.

Japan's government plans to ask prefectural leaders to coordinate and rotate medical staff between the areas that need them most. Government officials are also urging local authorities to quickly secure more hospital beds, as daily infection tallies continue to hit record highs.

They’re hoping to see these measures instituted before the New Year, when they fear increased travel could lead to a surge in cases just as medical facilities are scaling down operations for the holidays.

Japan currently has a record high 536 people in serious condition. Authorities confirmed more than 2,100 new cases on Tuesday, and a record 47 deaths.