Japan severely ill COVID-19 patients up 8-fold from start of ’22

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

Although the omicron coronavirus variant, which has become the dominant virus strain, is said to tend to cause milder symptoms, infectious disease experts have voiced a strong sense of vigilance against the rapid increase of seriously ill patients.

According to the health ministry, the combined total of COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms announced by local governments across Japan stood at 51 on Jan. 1. The 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, in line with the increase of new infection cases.

On Sunday, there were 430 severely ill COVID-19 patients in the country, about one-fifth of a record high scored on Sept. 4 last year during the fifth wave of infections, at 2,223.

The health ministry estimates that the proportion of suspected omicron cases has climbed to around 93% of all new coronavirus infection cases 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 the proportion for delta cases, according to Motoi Suzuki, who heads 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 on record, no case of severe symptoms has been confirmed,” Suzuki said. “This may suggest that the degree of severity has gone down.”

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

As of Tuesday, the occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms had exceeded 20% in Tokyo and in the western Japan prefecture of Kyoto and had come close to 70% in Okinawa Prefecture, southernmost Japan, according to the health ministry.

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

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, force the medical system to become strained and cause difficulties in maintaining social functions.