Rising anxiety over COVID-19 is dominating the focus on the Tokyo Olympics ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony, as infections emerging this week have sidelined athletes from the Games.
After the pandemic sparked a yearlong delay of the Olympics, the virus is continuing to wreak havoc for the Games as dozens of athletes and staff have tested positive in the days leading up to the global competition.
Organizers said as of Tuesday that 71 COVID-19 cases have been identified as connected to the Tokyo Olympics, including 31 among the international visitors flocking to the Japanese capital for the Games.
Brian McCloskey, a health adviser to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said earlier this week that the case count was “actually extremely low and probably lower than we expected to see if anything.”
“If I thought all tests we did would be negative, then I wouldn't bother doing the tests in the first place,” he said during a briefing. “We do the tests because they are a way of filtering out people who might be developing an infection who might become a risk later.”
Public health experts say these cases are inevitable as the pandemic continues worldwide, but strict mitigation measures have a chance of containing the virus and halting serious outbreaks at the Olympics.
Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said the Olympics pose “the ultimate test” of whether rigorous testing, quarantining, contact tracing and isolation methods could contain the virus.
She suggested if cases worsen, organizers could consider other containment protocols such as requiring N95 masks before deciding to cancel the Games as a whole.
Wen acknowledged there is risk involved in “any mass event” spreading the virus and variants to new places, but said other traveling and events pose similar dangers.
“I think in some ways the Olympics is unfairly being singled out when there are many other sources of COVID-19 risks that are happening all the time, including here in the U.S.,” she said, citing the lifted indoor mask requirements.
The IOC previously issued a 70-page playbook for athletes instructing them to take precautions such as daily temperature checks and limited contact before traveling to Japan. The athletes will have to get several COVID-19 tests both before arrival and during the Games, with those testing positive having to isolate and their close contacts being identified.
The committee also has recommended masks be worn at all times, except while eating, drinking, training, competing or sleeping.
The Tokyo Olympics will also look different from previous competitions in other ways, with spectators not in attendance and winning athletes placing their medals around their own necks to avoid virus spread.
Still, even with the precautions, athletes have already tested positive for COVID-19. U.S. tennis player Coco Gauff and basketball player Katie Lou Samuelson will miss the Games after contracting the virus.
Kara Eaker, an alternate on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, also tested positive for the virus, sending her and teammate Leanne Wong to quarantine. The team has since moved to stay at a hotel instead of Olympic Village, a coach confirmed on Twitter.
Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research Policy at the University of Minnesota, co-authored a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine that called for a risk-management approach to planning the Games.
“We realized that they were missing elements of the plan that were critical for trying to reduce the impact of COVID on the Olympics,” he said.
Osterholm said he thinks there are “still major holes” in the IOC’s current prevention plans, specifically noting the lack of risk assessments for each venue and sport.
“At this point, they’re being held, so all we can do is try to do the very best we can to limit transmission,” he said.
The organizing committee for the Tokyo Olympics has not ruled out the option of shutting down the Games if cases surge, the head of the committee Toshiro Muto said Tuesday.
But Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said “saying no is not the only risk mitigation measure that we have in our toolbox these days."
“There are a lot of things that we've learned over the past year about transmission, about how to control disease, and also we have a great vaccine that has really changed the game,” she said.
IOC President Thomas Bach said last week that 85 percent of athletes and officials living in Olympic Village are fully vaccinated, and almost all IOC members and staff are “vaccinated or immune.”
But the vaccination rate in Japan is lower, with about 22 percent of the population fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.
At the same time, Tokyo began its fourth state of emergency this month amid a local and global uptick in COVID-19 cases and the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told Washington Post Live on Monday that he thinks “everybody’s worried” the Olympics could transform into a superspreader event, noting that vaccinations are “the best way to protect against this turning into something worse.”
“But obviously, this has got to be watched with great care,” he said.
As of Tuesday, first lady Jill Biden still plans on attending the Olympics in Tokyo as the White House plans on “monitoring the situation closely,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
“Our team will be following very strict safety and health protocols, limiting engagement with the public, keeping our footprint as small as possible,” she said. “Our COVID team at the White House as well as health officials at the IOC and the government of Japan all agree that the stringent protocols and health measures in place will help keep our delegation safe.”