Weeks to the Olympics, hospitals in Japan’s second largest city of Osaka are buckling under a huge wave of new COVID-19 infections.
The city, home to nine million people, is running out of beds and ventilators as exhausted doctors warn of a “system collapse”.
They also advised against holding the Olympics this summer.
Japan’s western region is suffering the brunt of the fourth wave of the pandemic, accounting for a third of the nation’s death toll in May, although it constitutes just 7% of its population.
The speed at which Osaka’s healthcare system was overwhelmed underscores the challenges of hosting a major global sports event in two months’ time, particularly as only about half of Japan’s medical staff have completed inoculations.
“Simply put, this is a collapse of the medical system,” said Yuji Tohda, the director of Kindai University Hospital in Osaka.
“The highly infectious British variant and slipping alertness have led to this explosive growth in the number of patients.”
Japan has avoided the large infections suffered by other nations, but the fourth pandemic wave took Osaka prefecture by storm, with 3,849 new positive tests in the week to Thursday.
That represents a more than fivefold jump over the corresponding period three months ago.
Just 14% of the prefecture’s 13,770 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalised, leaving the majority to fend for themselves.
Tokyo’s latest hospitalisation rate, in comparison, is 37%.
A government advisory panel sees rates of less than 25% as a trigger to consider imposition of a state of emergency.
By Thursday, 96% of the 348 hospital beds Osaka reserves for serious virus cases were in use.
Since March, 17 people have died from the disease outside the prefecture’s hospitals, officials said this month.
The variant can make even young people very sick quickly, and once seriously ill, patients find it tough to make a recovery, said Toshiaki Minami, director of the Osaka Medical and Pharmaceutical University Hospital (OMPUH).