Okinawa's surging COVID cases may signal another wave

Japan's COVID-19 cases are rising again, especially in the southern prefecture of Okinawa, as people enjoy normal summer activities for the first time in three years. Some doctors fear another wave is imminent, after the government downgraded the coronavirus to the same category as seasonal flu in May.

Okinawa had 157 coronavirus patients admitted to hospitals in the week through Sunday, about 1.3 times more than in the previous week.

Hospital beds exclusively for COVID-19 patients are almost full, making it difficult for many hospitals to accept new patients in their emergency departments.

At the Yuuai Medical Center in Tomigusuku City, the special coronavirus ward reached full capacity on Tuesday, but ambulance workers continue to ask it to accept patients. Medical staff said they are struggling to manage beds.

When doctors determine that a patient needs to be hospitalized, they can sometimes clear a bed by discharging another patient whose condition has relatively improved.

Yamauchi Sunao, the head of the hospital's emergency department, said that he feels that conditions are almost as serious as they were at the beginning of last summer, when the hospital was overwhelmed. He described that period as "hell," and said he regrets he could not help some patients whose lives might have been saved.

Dr. Yamauchi Sunao, head of the emergency department at Yuuai Medical Center in Tomigusuku City, Okinawa, says another coronavirus wave could be looming and warns people to take preventive measures.

Yamauchi expressed a strong sense of crisis, saying he fears a deluge even bigger than last summer's wave. He said he hopes everyone will take preventive measures before this happens, to avoid repeating last year's situation.

Another wave "would be painful for me, for my patients and for their families," Yamauchi said.

Okinawa prefectural officials said finding hospital beds for coronavirus patients has already become difficult. They said in some cases, emergency workers have spent more than an hour finding a hospital able to accept a patient.

Tourism industry voicing concerns

Okinawa's mild climate and beautiful beaches have made it one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations. Business operators have voiced concerns about the impact of a further rise in coronavirus cases.

Summer is the peak tourist season, and hotel bookings typically begin to increase around this time of the year. But staff at a hotel in the biggest city of Naha said they have been receiving a couple of cancellations a day. They have also seen a slowdown in reservations from around last weekend, after coronavirus cases jumped.

Hotels in Okinawa have been expecting tourists to return this summer.

Staff at Novotel Okinawa Naha said some of its guests with reservations have also inquired about the infection situation ahead of their stays.

They said the reservation rate for the summer vacation season is still about 10 percent lower this year than before the pandemic, and that they had been expecting more reservations in the coming weeks.

Sakamoto Kimiharu, general manager of Novotel Okinawa Naha, said that he is very worried because July and August are peak months which predict the whole year's earnings.

"If we need to revise our earnings forecast downward, the impact on our business would be huge," he said.

Sakamoto Kimiharu, general manager of Novotel Okinawa Naha, says summer bookings are critical to the hotel's business.

The hotel has kept some preventive measures even after the government downgraded the virus, including alcohol for disinfection at several locations as well as gloves for its buffet restaurant diners.

"We don't force our customers to wear masks or disinfect their hands, but we want them to enjoy Okinawa while taking measures based on their own judgement," Sakamoto said.

Medical expert: No signs cases are subsiding

Takayama Yoshihiro, a doctor at Okinawa Chubu Hospital, also serves on a health ministry expert panel. He said he thinks the virus' recent spread is likely related to the government's downgrade of its status.

Dr. Takayama Yoshihiro from Okinawa Chubu Hospital says previous coronavirus infection waves spread from Okinawa to other parts of Japan, and warns this could happen again.

He said COVID infections are spreading rapidly in Okinawa among all age groups, with no signs of subsiding. He said cases of other infectious diseases such as respiratory syncytial virus are also rising.

"Probably it's because people are becoming more active after the government's downgrade, and the spread of infectious diseases that had been suppressed by precautions has been breathtaking," Takayama said.

He said as children have resumed normal activities, more of them are becoming seriously ill from infectious diseases other than the coronavirus.

Takayama also said hospital staff are having a harder time managing beds than in previous years, as administrative officials are not as involved with hospitalization management as they were before the government's downgrade.

The Okinawan prefectural government no longer coordinates beds for coronavirus patients, who now end up at larger emergency hospitals. He said this is putting a strain on some medical institutions.

"I believe it might become necessary for the government to make arrangements when emergency workers can't find places to transport patients," Takayama said.

He said he is calling on people to take preventive measures, and stressed that anyone with coronavirus symptoms should not go to school or work.

He also said elderly people and others who are vulnerable should be aware of virus risks in their daily lives. He cautioned them to avoid crowds if possible, and refrain from taking part in gatherings and dining with others until the infection situation improves.