As the 11,000 athletes and the numerous support staff that flock with them descend next month on Tokyo for the Olympic Games, the unknowns — and the risk those unknowns pose — are still prevalent.
The International Olympic Committee is committed to completing the Games, which were already postponed last summer due to the coronavirus pandemic. But as the opening ceremony approaches, the guidelines in place leave some public health experts with pause over how prudent the competition may be unless there are changes made before July 23.
With low vaccination rates among Japanese citizens, guidelines that public health experts say don’t fully recognize and address the airborne transmission possibilities of the coronavirus, and a focus on protecting athletes rather than the population as a whole breeds doubt into the current plan.
“You have kind of the perfect storm setting up right now, of bringing a large group of people in from all over the world,” said Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, a researcher and professor at the University of Illinois. “It’s safe to do anything. The question is, what adjustments are you willing to make to accommodate the current situation?”
Those adjustments will be paramount in the six weeks leading up to the Olympics. And while experts say it’s still possible to hold the Olympics — and hold the Games safely — the current guidelines and plans have several apparent weaknesses.
To Dr. Lisa Brosseau, a research consultant at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy within the University of Minnesota, the most glaring issue is the lack of ventilation to combat a virus that can spread rampantly through aerosol transmission.
In the IOC’s playbook to combat the coronavirus, there’s a focus on social distancing, cleaning surfaces and placing plexiglass barriers between people. There’s a need for ventilation, though, and while the guidelines mention opening windows every 30 minutes to aerate rooms, “that really isn’t adequate,” Brosseau said. “Opening a window every 30 minutes does not ensure you clear out all the particles.”
A simple solution would be the incorporation of portable HEPA air filters in smaller indoor spaces, cleaning the air that circulates. With athletes set to share living quarters, an air cleaner in each bedroom could cut down on possible transmission. And for larger spaces, reducing the number of people present and the time they spend in those locations would help, along with a larger air filtration system.
“But as far as I can tell,” Brosseau said, “they have done no evaluation of ventilation in any of the spaces — living spaces, busses, other transportation, and the indoor venues themselves.”
Changes to the structure of the Olympics at this stage could be difficult to incorporate, with the Games scheduled to run from July 23 to Aug. 8. But if the window was extended to space out competition while also limiting the number of athletes in Japan at one time, that could go a long way in reducing any potential spread of the virus.
“If you’re trying to congregate a lot of people together with unknown infection status, there’s a risk of spreading it,” Jacobson said. “The risk is not directly to the athletes — we know from that age group it just isn’t that much of a personal risk. But there is community risk, and there’s also risk to the people in Japan.”
The IOC has prioritized athlete vaccinations to prevent possible spread of the coronavirus, and IOC President Thomas Bach said he predicts more than 80% of athletes will be vaccinated by the time the Games begin. But Japan has lagged behind other countries with vaccination rates, another worrying factor ahead of the Games. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, 4.09% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Vaccine priority has gone to the elderly and medical personnel in Japan — the two groups in greatest need. But many of the volunteers at the Olympics don’t fall within those two categories. So while athletes may be vaccinated, there’s still heightened risk involved for those participating in the Games in other ways.
“There’s been an overabundance of attention on the athletes to the complete exclusion of understanding the risks for the rest of the population, which are like hundreds of thousands of people involved,” Brosseau said, referencing coaches, transportation workers and hotel staff, among many others.
Foreign spectators have been barred from attending the Olympics for months, but Japan is leaning toward allowing domestic fans to attend events, according to a report this week from The Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
That draws more questions, particularly for indoor venues.
“The minute you start talking about spectators, I kind of throw up my hands and say, ‘Really?’” said Dr. Edward Kaplan, a professor of public health at Yale. “Because Japan right now does not have a very good track record in terms of the fraction of the population that has been vaccinated.”
In the latest Olympic playbook released, there are stricter testing requirements, restricted socialization and a phone application for symptom screening. The issue with the latter, Brosseau said, is the possibility for asymptomatic transmission. While athletes will be tested every day, those around them won’t receive daily testing — an oversight that could put unvaccinated people at risk.
As far as socialization goes, Brosseau finds it unlikely athletes will spend the majority of their time sitting in their rooms when not competing.
“Do you really go expecting to spend any time not competing entirely by yourself in a single room? I don’t think that’s possible. That wouldn’t be possible for anyone,” Brosseau said. “I think the IOC seems to be sort of living in some kind of, I don’t know, dream land about what these athletes are going to be able to do.”
And while the IOC stresses the importance for distancing, the organization is providing 160,000 free condoms to Olympic village during the Games.
“If there’s all these condoms,” Brosseau said, “what’s really happening here?”
When Brosseau thinks of the best-case scenario for the Games, there’s still the possibility of infections — and the possibility of unwittingly bringing those infections to other countries during travel. The worst-case scenario is more dire, with the chance of a “serious outbreak” in Japan and elsewhere, only exacerbated by the presence of variant strains of the virus.
But Brosseau and others emphasizes that while there are risks, the IOC can take steps to alleviate some of them.
“The world needs something like the Olympics to bring it back together,” Brosseau said. “But the world needs an Olympics that is safe, and that is the problem.”