Explainer: Heatstroke or COVID-19? Similar symptoms could confuse at Olympics

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games logo, postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, can be seen through a traffic sign in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building in Tokyo, Japan, Jan. 22, 2021. REUTERS / Issei Kato

Emergency medics warn that first responders at the Tokyo Olympics could easily confuse heat stroke and coronavirus patients because the diseases have similar symptoms.

While the organizers of the Games have moved the marathon and race-walk events to the cooler northern city of Sapporo, most of the events take place in Tokyo between July 23 and August 8, the height of the city’s hot and humid summer .

“Medical resources are so limited in hot summer, even in normal summer without the Olympics,” said Shoji Yokobori, chairman of the emergency and intensive care unit at Nippon Medical School Hospital in Tokyo.

Shinji Nakahara, a public health expert at Kanagawa University of Human Services, said medical teams could mistake a COVID-19 patient for heat stroke because both diseases have symptoms of high temperature, dehydration and fatigue.

“It can create chaos in medical supply stations at any venue,” said Nakahara.

Tokyo’s emergency healthcare system has already got a taste of the combination of heat stroke and COVID-19. The so-called difficult to transfer cases – in which a patient transport is refused by several hospitals – more than doubled last summer compared to the previous year.

Toshiro Muto, CEO of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, said officials are working on plans to combat heat stroke, which is considered a major health concern alongside COVID-19.

In a study of heat stroke management during the pandemic, Yokobori found that out of 1,000 cases later diagnosed with severe heat stroke, about four people tested positive for COVID-19.

While the ratio was nominal, the outcome was a “shock,” Yokobori said due to the risks associated with hospital-acquired infections.

Wearing masks, an important preventive measure against the coronavirus, makes the problem worse and can raise body temperature in the heat of summer.

This not only endangers spectators, but also rescue workers, said Yokobori and called on the organizers to exclude spectators from the games.

Tokyo 2020 has already blocked overseas viewers but has yet to announce if locals can attend.

“When caring for heat stroke patients, we must also protect ourselves with heavy protective equipment because we cannot separate COVID-19 with heat stroke,” said Yokobori. “That makes us so stressed.”

(This story has been rewritten to correct typos in paragraph 11, 13)

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