As Japan re-opens, a hospital grapples with virus aftermath

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    YOKOHAMA. – Doctors in white coats and blue scrubs sat around a conference room table in June, looking up at a colorful slide projected on the wall.

    “How is anyone supposed to memorize this?” a doctor sitting in the back asked as Yoshihiro Masui, the director of Yokohama City Seibu Hospital’s critical care centre, checked the slides.

    The presentation, full of color-coded flow charts, showed dozens of new safety protocols for everything from routine surgeries to dialysis.

    Weeks earlier, Seibu had been the site of one of the worst hospital coronavirus outbreaks in Japan, with some 80 people testing positive for COVID-19, including 43 staff members. By the time the hospital contained the spread, 13 elderly patients had died.

    For most of May, the 500-bed hospital, in a port city 30km south of Tokyo, had sat empty.

    After the outbreak, it halted nearly all outpatient services. Doctors and nurses were required to spend two weeks at home, monitoring for symptoms before they could return to work.

    Now, as the country emerges from a state of emergency, hospitals like Seibu face the prospects of operating in the shadow of a virus with no treatment or cure.

    “We can never have an outbreak again like the one we experienced,” said Masui, an emergency doctor who has been charged with the hospital’s coronavirus response. “What we learned is that this can truly happen anywhere.”

    Doctors and nurses at Seibu were among the first to mobilize for the pandemic in Japan, accepting sick passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February.

    After treating dozens of coronavirus patients, a man with no fever and no other obvious symptoms was carried into the emergency room in early April. The man was kept in a room with another patient before he was discharged to another facility. By the time the staff learned in late April the man had the virus, it had already spread to other wings of the hospital.

    Masui says he felt responsible for the outbreak.

    “I pushed the hospital to take in suspected coronavirus patients, knowing other hospitals were turning them away,” he said during a rare break between his rounds. “I was the one convincing the head of the hospital to take these patients in.”

    More than 18,000 people have tested positive for the virus in Japan. The number of new coronavirus cases have fallen since mid-April and with 971 deaths, the country has so far managed to dodge the kind of catastrophic death toll seen elsewhere. – Reuters