Coronavirus spurs healthcare crisis on Okinawan island

A surge in coronavirus cases on a remote Japanese island has caused a medical crisis, with the main hospital reaching capacity. Local officials are urging residents of Miyakojima to batten down in a bid to contain infections.

“We are in a critical situation,” Miyakojima mayor Zakimi Kazuyuki said last week. “Please take precautionary measures that are equivalent to a lockdown.”

The virus is spreading rapidly throughout the population of 55,000. Health officials have confirmed about 420 cases so far, more than half of which were recorded last month. There has been one death.

Graph: Covid-19 daily cases in Miyakojima

Public schools have been closed since January 28. The island’s main shopping street is usually bustling with people, but it’s now deserted. Most stores have either cut business hours or closed altogether.

NHK’s Kawamitsu Takeshi has been reporting from Miyakojima – which is 300km southwest of Okinawa Island - for 35 years. He says an emphasis on close personal relationships is a feature of the remote community that has aided transmission.

“Infections are spreading among closely related people,” he notes. “Everyone must be scared. They are all worried that they might be the next to get infected.”

Many who have been in close contact with infected people are visiting a drive-through PCR test facility.

Miyakojima’s main street
Downtown Miyakojima was largely deserted on January 29.

The island’s prefectural hospital has more than 270 beds. As cases increased, it increased the number of beds designated for COVID-19 patients to 61 from 44. Despite the move, capacity is already full, with another 29 coronavirus patients waiting for space to open up.

The hospital’s manager has decided to stop admitting walk-in patients to allow staff to focus on the virus.

“The COVID ward is overwhelmed," says Dr Shiiki Soichi, who was dispatched from Okinawa Island to help. “We have many elderly patients in serious condition. But we don't even have enough pulse monitors.”

Dr Shiiki says the hospital needs more support from local clinics: “It will be helpful if other medical facilities could conduct PCR tests and look after the people who are resting at home. We can't manage this by ourselves.”

Some islanders are worried that the hospital can’t offer its usual services.

“I’m concerned about not being able to see the same doctor," says Sadoyama Masaki, whose four-year-old son Ramon is an outpatient. Ramon has a monthly appointment to follow up on oral surgery he received as a baby. “It looks like we will have to skip the next appointment. I wonder how long this situation will last,” says Sadoyama.

Japan’s central government has stepped in and dispatched Self-Defense Forces personnel to help out at the hospital. A group of medics arrived on the weekend.