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Beset by coronavirus wave, Tokyo's doctors lead push against the Games

6 minute read

TOKYO, May 26 (Reuters) - When Hiroki Saito took over the intensive-care ward on Tuesday morning, room No. 8 at the end of its cordoned-off section had been cleaned, locked up, and a ventilator beaming red light set in motion to disinfect the air.

"A 79-year-old patient died here this morning," Saito said as he walked through the corridors, checking on patients and staff. "His family was told by the night shift doctor. They would not be able to say their goodbyes directly."

The U.S.-educated doctor has overseen a heavy load of COVID-19 cases at St. Marianna University Yokohama Seibu Hospital during the pandemic, including the current wave, which has forced Japan's capital and several other areas into another state of emergency.

With two months until the Summer Olympics, doctors such as Saito, as well as nurses and public health experts, have become one of the most outspoken groups voicing their concerns about the Games, saying the event would put the public at risk and further strain the healthcare system.

"It's difficult to achieve zero cases when the infection is spreading around in different communities. In that sense, having a large-scale event would pose an inevitable risk," Saito said.

Other staff at the hospital west of Tokyo were more direct: "This is not the time for the Olympics," said Chizu Kawabata, a nurse on a morning shift at the hospital's emergency centre.

Most people in Japan oppose holding the Games, polls show, and a handful of entrepreneurs and celebrities have echoed the sentiment publicly. On Wednesday, the official partner of the event, the Asahi Shimbun daily, published an editorial calling for the Olympics to be cancelled.

Several large unions representing medical staff have also sent open letters to Prime Minister Suga and published commentaries warning that if people died because of the Olympics, Japan would bear "maximum responsibility".

Much of the country, including host city Tokyo, remains under a third state of emergency that is widely expected to be extended beyond this month. Japan has recorded about 719,000 cases and 12,394 deaths since the pandemic began.

The organisers have pointed to other successful sports events as evidence that the Games can go ahead. On Friday, the top international Olympic official overseeing the preparations, John Coates, said the Games would continue even if Tokyo were under a state of emergency.

Some medical officials and local governors have balked at a request by the organising committee to provide nurses and secure hospital beds for the event.

'GIVE US A BREAK'

Experts worry some 90,000 people arriving with the Olympic delegations could spread fresh variants of the coronavirus. They also point to Japan's low vaccination rate. Only 5.2% of the public have received at least one injection and just over a half of medical personnel are fully vaccinated.

To have about a third of the population vaccinated by the Olympics, the government would need to distribute about a million shots a day, more than double the current pace.

In the starkest example of protest, staff at Tachikawa General Hospital, which has accepted more than 240 coronavirus patients, put up placards in May saying: "Cancel the Olympics! Give us a break," and "The medical system is at breaking point".

Seeing the worsening situation in Osaka, the country's second-largest city, Tachikawa General Hospital has expanded the number of beds at its high-care unit - one step below intensive care - for serious COVID-19 cases at the expense of space for other patients.

"Our staff fully comply with movement restrictions affecting their personal freedom. We're barely able to staff each ward. If anyone quits due to fatigue, the medical system would collapse like a domino," Masaya Takahashi, the head of the hospital, warned the news media after the protest.

At Komagome Hospital - run by the organizer of the Olympics, the Tokyo metropolitan government - the situation is equally dire, said Hideaki Dairi, a nurse who looks after coronavirus patients at its high-care unit.

Dairi said he worried that as a city-run institution, the hospital may have to treat sick athletes at the expense of the residents if the bed situation becomes tight. The hospital has about 160 beds designated for COVID-19 patients across six wards.

"We had to shut down some wards to concentrate nurses in those six wards," said Dairi, who represents about 3,000 staff from hospitals run by the Tokyo metropolitan government as a labour union leader.

That has meant a broader reshuffle of staff and patients across the hospital, straining its scarce resources, he said: "The staff working with coronavirus patients are struggling, but those working elsewhere are also under huge stress."

Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski and Ju-min Park; additional reporting by Elaine Lies and Rocky Swift; Editing by Gerry Doyle

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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