Infectious Diseases Spreading in Quake Shelters in Noto Region

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A member of the medial team from the Osaka Red Cross Hospital examines the condition of an evacuee at a shelter in the city of Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Saturday.

Infectious diseases, such as COVID-19 and gastroenteritis, have begun spreading in shelters established for areas hit by the Noto Peninsula Earthquake.

More than 30,000 people are taking refuge at such shelters. With many houses and buildings having been damaged or collapsed by the major earthquake, evacuees may be forced to take refuge for an extended period.

Authorities and medical workers are urged to take measures to ensure physical and mental health of disaster-stricken victims, especially with there being many elderly evacuees.

Deteriorating hygiene condition

Conditions at a shelter in a public hall in the city of Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, began to worsen on Friday. A team of medial workers from the Osaka Red Cross Hospital examined evacuees at the request of the city government on Saturday morning after several people complained of diarrhea and fever.

On the same day, a woman in her 70s was rushed to a hospital after being suddenly overcome with fever and vomiting.

At least 10 of about 70 evacuees were suspected of having caught infectious diseases.

“Sanitary conditions at shelters are seriously deteriorating,” said Wajima Mayor Shigeru Sakaguchi at a meeting of the prefecture’s disaster response headquarters. “The number of people infected with COVID-19 and influenza is increasing.”

In the town of Anamizu, Mayor Koki Yoshimura reported that three evacuees were found to have been infected with COVID-19 at one of its shelters.

In the town of Shika, influenza and COVID-19 infections have been confirmed in at least three out of 14 shelters as of Friday.

At the town-run Togi Kasseika Center, where about 160 people are taking refuge, three evacuees were found to have been infected with influenza.

Isolating patients in a separate room, the city set up a temporary toilet exclusively for their use.

Officials are urging evacuees to wear masks and take other precautions, but there are concerns that they are running low on disinfectants and towels.

“It’s cold here because doors are kept open for ventilation, but nobody complains,” said Kazuko Shimbo, 78, who has been staying at the shelter since New Year’s Day. “I keep my mask on even when I go to sleep.”

The situation is apparently similar in the city of Nanao.

“The number of patients with infectious diseases suddenly began surging,” said Masahiro Kanno, director of Keiju Medical Center in the city of Nanao, which began accepting injured survivors of the earthquake immediately after its outbreak.

A total of five COVID-19 patients were admitted to the hospital on Friday and Saturday, he said.

Cluster infections concern

Experts are warning against the outbreak of cluster infections.

“As evacuees stay close to each other at shelters, respiratory ailments, such as influenza and COVID-19, tend to spread. Infectious forms of gastroenteritis, such as norovirus infections, may be passed on through toilets,” said Prof. Tetsuya Matsumoto of the International University of Health and Welfare.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has suggested measures to be taken against infectious diseases at shelters. It emphasizes the importance of ventilation, on top of wearing masks and washing hands.

It suggests using a ventilation method involving opening two doors or windows diagonally across the room from each other, in case machine ventilation is insufficient or many people are in the same space.

“In case you don’t have water, I recommend you wipe your hands with a moist towelette,” said Prof. Erisa Sugawara of the Tokyo Healthcare University. “It’s also important to isolate those who may be infected in a separate room as soon as possible.”