Saturday, July 24, 2021
After 18 months of debate and discussion, the 2020 Olympic Games has officially begun. Whether this will be viewed as a welcome step toward normal life or an ill-considered decision that prolongs the pandemic is anybody’s guess right now. Worst-case scenario? Infection could spread through the athletic village, mixing virus versions from throughout the world and then disbursing them, leading to a new fast-spreading variant.
Best-case scenario? There will be some athletes and other attendees who test positive just as there would have been if they stayed home. But with testing, isolation, and contact tracing, the number of cases may be contained. Rampant spread of any one genome might be prevented, no country would be worse off than it was before, and we can celebrate the event that brings the world together for a few weeks every four years.
The Olympic organizers have put safeguards in place. Before checking into those, I wanted to know just what it takes for a regular non-athlete U.S. citizen to visit Japan. It’s not easy.
Right now Japan is in its fourth state of emergency, declared on July 12 to go until August 22, 2021. On June 16 the U.S. State Department issued a Level 3 Health Advisory for U.S. citizens, which they succinctly express as “reconsider travel.” Japan on its end requires a visa from the consulate, a negative PCR test within 72 hour of departure, and 14 days of self-quarantine upon arrival. You must add several smartphone apps to your phone so that your quarantine, your health, and your contacts can be monitored. The requirements are the same whether you are vaccinated or not.
Olympic athletes have the same requirements plus many more. They are not required to be vaccinated. All of them are given an official Playbook upon arrival with rules which apply to approximately 11,000 athletes and the 41,000 coaches, journalists, and other staff members who accompany them.
Athletes are not allowed to go out and explore the sights while in Japan. Instead they have to submit an activity plan in advance detailing their arrival, departure, and exactly where they will be in between. Once approved, this will be very hard to change. Here is some of the other information from the Playbook:
- All the safety requirements are the same for both vaccinated and unvaccinated athletes. Vaccines have been donated so that athletes have the opportunity to be vaccinated after arrival, but it’s not required.
- Each athlete is tested twice before boarding the plane to Tokyo–once 96 hours ahead and once 72 hours ahead of take-off. After arrival they are to have a screening test. Athletes and officials are to have a daily saliva antigen screening test, followed by a confirmatory PCR antigen test if positive or inconclusive. Other Olympic participants (journalists, staff, family, etc.) are tested every four days.
- Just like any visitor, the Olympic arrivals must download and use two smartphone apps. OCHA, for personal health reporting and customs information and COCOA to notify you of possible contact with an infected person.
- Masks are required except for specific activities like eating and competing. There are detailed rules for social distancing in living areas, transportation, etc. See the link to the Playbook below for details.
Not everyone agrees that the Playbook’s provisions are adequate. A group of epidemiologists including Dr. Michael Osterholm (whose podcast I never miss) published an article in The New England Journal of Medicine which expresses some of their concerns about the safety measures at the Olympics as stated in the Playbook.
Here are some of their observations:
- Many athletes will not be vaccinated, especially the younger ones.
- Aerosol transmission, now known to be the major way the virus spreads, does not receive enough attention. For example, sports are all treated the same even though they vary as to amount of contact, indoor vs outdoor venue, etc.
- Athletes are to bring their own masks and share rooms. Up to 3 people in a room is standard.
- Living and transport spaces–buses, cafeterias, hotels–lack modern air flow capability.
- Athletes are provided with a smart phone instead of a wearable device for the apps that monitor health and contact tracing.
- In contrast, sports events that are taking place today involve one sport with specific safety measures for that sport. Athletes have single rooms and wearable tracking devices.
These experts recommended that the WHO convene an emergency safety committee as they did in 2016 for the Brazil Olympics during the Zika outbreak. Their conclusion is to proceed with the Games, but proceed safely.
This is only Day Two, and already some headlines are emphasizing the worst:
So brace yourself. You are going to be seeing these for weeks. Keep in mind that the athletes and support staff are coming and going all the time. They can only check in 5 days before their event, so we will continue to hear about new cases in asymptomatic people who landed in Tokyo and then tested positive and had to be isolated, contacts traced (other people on their team, for example), and, if confirmed positive, unable to compete.
In other words, we can expect to hear about positive tests continuously for the next month. That does not in itself mean that COVID-19 is spreading within the Olympic Village. And most of the cases we read about are not athletes at all. When CBS announces that 17 new positive tests brings the total to 127 (article link below), they add in the article that only 1 of the new cases was in an athlete, bringing the total of athlete cases to 14.
And don’t forget that the Olympic moment is not over on August 22. The Paralympics are scheduled for Aug. 24 – Sept. 5, bringing 5,000 more athletes and their support staff. Their success depends a lot on how this first Pandemic Olympic unfolds.
Today’s Notable Headlines
“Olympic Athletes Face Strong COVID-19 Protocols, Restrictions as Cases Rise in Tokyo,” Sports Illustrated, July 23, 2021. https://www.si.com/olympics/2021/07/23/tokyo-olympics-covid-19-protocols-restrictions-rules-for-athletes
“Let The Games Begin: Tokyo Olympics Holds Its Opening Ceremony,” NPR, July 23, 2021. https://www.npr.org/sections/tokyo-olympics-live-updates/2021/07/23/1019622003/tokyo-olympics-opening-ceremony
“Olympics to be held under Tokyo’s 4th coronavirus state of emergency,” NHK World Japan, Monday, July 19, 2021. https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/backstories/1711/
“First Playbook published outlining measures to deliver safe and successful Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020,” International Olympic Committee, Feb. 3, 2021. https://olympics.com/en/news/first-playbook-published-outlining-measures-to-deliver-safe-and-successful-olymp
“Protecting Olympic Participants from Covid-19 — The Urgent Need for a Risk-Management Approach,” The New England Journal of Medicine, July 1, 2021, Annie K. Sparrow, M.D., M.P.H., Lisa M. Brosseau, Sc.D., Robert J. Harrison, M.D., M.P.H., and Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2108567
“A Dutch Rower Competed At The Olympics, Then Tested Positive For Coronavirus,” NPR, July 24, 2021.
“17 new Olympic-related COVID-19 cases reported, bringing total to 127,” CBS News, July 24, 2021. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/olympics-covid-19-cases-tokyo-2021/
COVID-19 INFORMATION, U.S. Embassy and Consulates In Japan. https://jp.usembassy.gov/covid-19-information/
Japan Travel Advisory, U.S. Department of State, https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/japan-travel-advisory.html, June 16, 2021.
The Playbook for Athletes and Officials, June 2021, Version 3, https://stillmed.olympics.com/media/Documents/Olympic-Games/Tokyo-2020/Playbooks/The-Playbook-Athletes-and-Officials-V3.pdf
Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, https://www.paralympic.org/tokyo-2020
Why am I doing this?
The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. I intend to journal the pandemic experience from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, as a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary world crisis.