Japan sees more patients, a dire projection

BANGKOK (AP) — Japan could see some 850,000 people seriously sickened by the COVID-19 and almost half of them dying if no social distancing or other measures are followed, according to an expert estimate released yesterday.

Japan has the world’s oldest population, which is a particular concern since COVID-19 can be especially serious and fatal in the elderly. And there are concerns that Japan’s government has done too little and acted too late to stave off high numbers of seriously ill patients.

The current state of emergency is voluntary and does not compensate workers who have lost earnings. Japanese companies also have been slow to adapt to remote work, meaning people still have continued to use public transit to commute to large offices in the densely populated capital region.

Already, patients are being moved to more hospitals and even hotels in Tokyo as infections surge in the capital, where medical experts warn the health care system is on the brink of collapse.

The projection by the government-commissioned team is a worst-case scenario, said Hokkaido University Professor and cluster analysis expert Hiroshi Nishiura.

File photo of the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship at Daikoku pier cruise terminal in Yokohama. PHOTO: AFP

He urged people to cooperate in the social distancing effort. “We can stop the transmission if all of us change our activity and significantly reduce interactions.”

The report projected 420,000 potential deaths because the seriously ill would require respiratory care or treatment in intensive care units and ventilators would run out if no preventive measures were taken, according to the report provided by the Health Ministry.

“If we are unprepared and hit by the pandemic, we will run out of respirators,” Nishitani told reporters.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures on April 7 and asked people to curb their public activities. It was expanded nationwide last Saturday. Nishiura expressed concerns that slowing infections would take longer if social distancing was limited.

An estimated 652,000 people 65 or older will become seriously ill under a hypothesis of one patient infecting 2.5 others, Nishiura said. An estimated 201,000 people from ages 15 to 64 would become seriously ill without social distancing and other preventive measures.

Japan currently has over 8,800 cases of infection and 231 deaths, including about 700 positive cases from a cruise ship that was quarantined at a port near Tokyo earlier this year. The Health Ministry reported 457 new cases yesterday. Tokyo has about a quarter of Japan’s total cases and many of the sick patients are hospitalised.

Officials are under pressure to expand space for more patients, while transferring those with no or slight symptoms to hotels to make room for others in serious condition. So far, 105 patients who are slightly ill have been moved into a hotel, and Tokyo plans to secure up to 3,500 single rooms by June.

Hospitals that normally are not equipped to treat infectious diseases are being asked to take in patients. Medical experts have warned that Tokyo’s health care system is on the brink of collapse.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:


Chinese scientists have started the second phase of a clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine in the hardest-hit city of Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province. China’s Central Television reported 273 out of 500 volunteers have been injected with the vaccine candidate. The first phase of the vaccine clinical trial focussed on its safety, while the second phase studies its efficacy. China reported 46 new virus cases yesterday, 36 of them from overseas. Eight of the domestic cases were in Heilongjiang province bordering Russia, where authorities have been rushing to stem a new outbreak among those travelling back to China.

Voters wore masks and moved slowly between lines of tape at polling stations after the government resisted calls to postpone South Korea’s Parliamentary elections, seen as a midterm referendum on President Moon Jae-in. Long lines and record-high participation in early voting seemed to defy expectations of low voter turnout in the middle of a social-distancing campaign to slow infections.

Australia’s Prime Minister is urging teachers to keep schools open for the sake of children’s education and the economy. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s social media message comes as Victoria state schools resumed yesterday after a term break and other states are considering their response. Morrison said that learning at home is not an option for some children, and that parents should not have to choose between holding down a job or caring for their families.