Japan's daily total of COVID-19 cases surpassed 20,000 on Friday, logging a record figure for the third straight day, while the number of patients with severe symptoms also hit a new high as concerns over a possible collapse of the country's medical system continue to mount.
With the virus spreading rapidly and showing no signs of abating, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to hold talks with relevant ministers next week on expanding the state of emergency beyond Tokyo and other prefectures where it is currently in place, according to sources close to the matter.
Tokyo, just over a month into its fourth state of emergency, logged a record 5,773 new infections the same day, topping the previous high of 5,042 logged on Aug. 5, the metropolitan government said. The capital's seven-day rolling average of infections has risen to 4,155.7 per day, up 8.8 percent from the previous week.
The number of COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms across Japan rose to a record 1,478 as of Thursday, surpassing the previous high of 1,413 logged in late May, the health ministry said.
Tokyo reported a record 227 patients with severe symptoms on Friday, topping the previous high of 218 logged a day earlier.
Suga, who called on the public to avoid traveling over the summer holidays, pledged to work with local governments to establish a system under which people recuperating at home can be contacted.
"I believe that the medical system in Tokyo is in a dire situation. Under such circumstances, it is the greatest responsibility of the government to protect the lives of the people," he said at a press conference Friday.
Cases of seriously ill COVID-19 patients have been rapidly increasing nationwide since mid-July.
Such cases have risen among those in their 40s and 50s due to the slowness of vaccinations, mainly in Tokyo, while young people have also been among patients with serious symptoms, defined as those requiring assistance by ventilators, artificial heart-lung bypass devices or treatment in intensive care units.
Experts at Thursday's metropolitan government meeting on monitoring COVID-19 described the current coronavirus situation in the capital as "a disaster-level emergency situation that is out of control."
The National Governors' Association on Friday issued an emergency statement criticizing the central government's current measures as "ineffective" and calling for more drastic measures such as a lockdown to send a strong message to the public.
But Suga defended his administration's efforts to contain the virus, saying at the press conference, "Countries around the world have imposed lockdowns and fines for violations, yet they couldn't get people to obey."
Friday's nationwide figure, based on a Kyodo News tally compiled from official information, topped the 18,889 new COVID-19 cases logged the previous day, when 20 of the nation's 47 prefectures reported record new infections.
Areas neighboring Tokyo have also been struggling to deal with the rising number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization.
Hideki Shinhama, assistant chief of the emergency services division of the Chiba city fire department, spoke of a case involving a man in his 60s who was turned away from hospitals 58 times, requiring the emergency team to stay with him for over four hours.
"Even if we increase the number of emergency teams, they will only have to stay longer at the scene if there are no (hospital) beds available," said Shinhama.
Tomoki Nakamori, head of the emergency disaster medical department at Yokohama Rosai Hospital in Kanagawa Prefecture, said the hospital has to refuse 30 of the roughly 40 admissions requests its receives each day due to beds being almost fully occupied.
According to Nakamori, the hospital has to handle admissions not only of COVID-19 patients but also people with heatstroke or injuries.
"The situation is the same throughout Kanagawa Prefecture. All hospitals have no choice but to push on and increase the number of beds, including for patients with general injuries or illnesses," Nakamori said.