Severely ill COVID patients in Japan up eightfold from start of ’22

The number of COVID-19 patients in Japan with severe symptoms has jumped around eightfold from the start of 2022 as a sixth wave of infections hits the country.

Although the omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has become the dominant strain, is believed to cause milder symptoms than other variants, infectious disease experts have urged the public to remain vigilant amid the rapid increase in seriously ill patients.

According to the health ministry, the combined number of COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms announced by local governments nationwide stood at 51 on Jan. 1. That figure climbed to 89 in a week, to 233 in two weeks and topped 400 on Friday for the first time in about three months, as new infections rise.

On Sunday, there were 430 severely ill patients across the country, about one-fifth of a record-high 2,223 marked on Sept. 4, during a fifth wave of infections.

The health ministry estimates that the proportion of suspected omicron cases has climbed to around 93% of all new infections confirmed in Japan.

For omicron cases, the proportion of patients who had developed pneumonia when their infections were reported to authorities stood at about one-sixth of that for cases of the delta variant, according to Motoi Suzuki, head of the Infectious Disease Surveillance Center at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Of 2,007 omicron carriers registered in the Japanese government’s system, 1,193 had information about their symptoms entered and 1,165 were mildly ill. Of 28 patients with moderate symptoms, only seven needed supplemental oxygen.

At least according to available records, few cases of severe symptoms have been confirmed, Suzuki said.

“This may suggest that the degree of severity has gone down,” he said.

Still, it’s certain that the absolute number of seriously ill patients will rise if infections spread further.

As of Tuesday, the occupancy rate of hospital beds set aside for COVID-19 patients had exceeded 20% in Tokyo and Kyoto Prefecture, and had come close to 70% in Okinawa Prefecture, according to the health ministry.

A group of experts who advise the central government on its COVID-19 response said in a set of proposals submitted to the government Friday that the omicron variant should be regarded as causing an infectious disease different from that caused by the other variants.

Noting that the omicron strain initially causes a surge in the number of mildly ill patients and then spreads to the elderly, the group warned that the new variant may lead to further rises in severely ill and hospitalized patients, straining the medical system and disrupting social and economic activities.

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