Tokyo doctor at the crossroads of COVID-19 crisis, quiet Olympics

Ju-min Park, Reuters

Posted at Aug 04 2021 07:51 PM

TOKYO - After more than a year at the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, Japanese emergency doctor Shoji Yokobori finds himself at the unlikely calm of the Olympics, overseeing a venue with strict protocols, no spectators and low infection risks.

A volunteer medical officer at the Tokyo Olympics weightlifting venue, Yokobori and a team of around a dozen other medical staff are yet to see a major injury, let alone a coronavirus outbreak.

It's a world apart from the strain of his regular job running the intensive care unit at Tokyo's Nippon Medical School Hospital, fighting a fifth wave of the pandemic that is pushing the city's medical care system to the brink.

"I am now living in two different worlds," said the 47-year-old director of the hospital's department of emergency and critical care medicine, wearing a pink medical vest as he stood in the quiet of a near empty Tokyo International Forum.

"When we go back to the real world, like in the hospital, we see the many patients of COVID-19," Yokobori said. "It is like heaven or hell, I don't know."

Yokobori's dual existence illustrates life at the two extremes of Tokyo's Olympic "bubble". Games organizers are running a village for athletes and coaches where more than 80% are vaccinated against the coronavirus, testing is compulsory and movement is stringently curtailed. In the broader Japanese capital, vaccination rates remain low and protocols around testing and movement are nowhere near as strict.

Yokobori's hospital was chosen to help with the Olympics given its reputation for emergency care and Yokobori, a fan of tennis player Naomi Osaka, said he was happy to volunteer.

He makes rounds of the cavernous venue's medical stations, checking in and sometimes assigning nurses to take athlete blood samples for doping tests. The lack of spectators cuts the workload, volunteers said.

But Yokobori also takes urgent calls from his staff at the hospital, seeking advice on issues like whether to use lung support for critical COVID-19 cases.

A spike in cases fueled by the Delta variant this week led Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to announce that only seriously ill COVID-19 patients would be admitted to hospital, raising fears of an increase in deaths. The government on Wednesday signaled it might consider rolling back the controversial policy.

BACK TO THE FRONT

Yokobori was back on the floor of the hospital intensive care unit on Sunday, when he had a day off from Olympic duties.

Just after he told Reuters there was only one ICU bed left for severe COVID-19 cases, another patient was admitted, taking the last of the allotted 10 beds.

Yokobori said he was particularly worried about the spike in cases involving younger patients, who took longer to treat, tying up beds longer.

"We still don't know when it will peak out. That's why we are afraid," Yokoburi said as he monitored live video of patients in the ICU's 60 beds.

One doctor at another Olympics venue is considering quitting his volunteer work at the Games to return to his hospital to ease the burden on colleagues, according to public broadcaster NHK.

As it stands, Yokobori plans to continue his volunteer work through the Paralympics after the Olympics end on Aug.8. Yet he is also ready to leave the Olympics should the situation at his hospital worsen. "I don't want to see peaks during the Olympic period," he said, standing on the floor of the ICU. "But if that happens we will have to change shifts and put more firepower here." 

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