Japan reported 12,017 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, the second highest on record, adding to growing concerns about hospital bed shortages, with some doctors criticizing the government's response.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga decided the previous day that only patients with severe cases of COVID-19 can be admitted to hospital, making a policy U-turn. The government had said that all patients except for those with mild coughing symptoms should be hospitalized in principle.
Tokyo, where the Olympics are being held, confirmed an additional 3,709 infections, after dipping slightly to 2,195 the previous day. New cases had topped 3,000 for five consecutive days through Sunday.
The capital's seven-day rolling average of cases has risen to a record 3,337.4 per day, up 89.3 percent from the previous week.
Three weeks have passed since the central government placed Tokyo under a fourth state of emergency from July 12. But the measure, which mostly relies on a cooperative public and not a hard lockdown as in some countries, has had little effect in slowing infections.
Although foot traffic in downtown areas has decreased slightly, the surge in infections comes amid the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Public health centers in charge of arranging hospitalizations in Tokyo have been unable to keep up with the rising cases, leaving over 8,000 COVID patients with nowhere to go as of Monday.
The number of people recuperating at home in Tokyo has topped 10,000, a 10-fold increase in just one month.
Following Suga's policy shift, even COVID-19 patients with breathing problems or pneumonia could now be asked to recuperate at home.
Health minister Norihisa Tamura said that, even if coronavirus cases further increase, enough beds would be secured for critically ill patients and those at home whose conditions suddenly deteriorate.
"Our first priority is to treat people who may be at risk of dying," he told a press conference, adding that the government plans to support public health centers in strengthening the system to monitor patients remotely.
But some doctors, concerned that the sudden change of policy will result in increased deaths at home, criticized the decision as irresponsible.
Tomo Kimura, a doctor involved in home medical care in the Tokyo metropolitan area, said it is difficult for clinics to observe patients remotely in real time as not many have the equipment or manpower to do so.
"The government had plenty of time to take countermeasures, such as preparing new treatment facilities, but it failed to do so. I want to think about what I can do as a doctor, but it is irresponsible to suddenly throw it on to the medical field," he said.