Updated Jul 19, 2021 - Health

U.S. alternate gymnast tests positive as Olympics' COVID protocols face early tests

The members of different delegations wait for their Covid-19 test results after arriving for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Narita International Airport in Narita, Chiba prefecture.
The members of different delegations wait for their Covid-19 test results after arriving for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Narita International Airport in Narita, Chiba prefecture on July 17, 2021. Photo: Charly Triballeau - AFP via Getty Images.

In an early test of COVID surveillance at the Summer Olympic Games, several athletes have already tested positive for COVID-19 following arrival in Tokyo. But International Olympic Committee [IOC] officials say they are confident the Games can be carried out safely.

The latest: An alternate for the U.S. women's gymnastics team tested positive for COVID-19 in Japan on Sunday, according to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

  • Officials would not say whether other members of the team had been asked to self-isolate due to contact with the athlete.
  • “In alignment with local rules and protocols, the athlete has been transferred to a hotel to quarantine. Out of respect for the individual’s privacy, we cannot provide more information at this time," the USOPC said in a statement.

Why it matters: Infectious disease experts have raised alarm that, particularly with the highly virulent Delta variant and the low vaccination rate in Japan, plans laid out by the IOC to prevent widespread transmission of the virus will fall short.

  • IOC officials pushed back, saying their multi-layered safety measures — which include social distancing and mask-wearing requirements, hand hygiene, and daily testing — will prevent a superspeader event.

"We’re not saying there will be no cases because there will be cases," Brian McCloskey, chairman of the IOC's independent expert panel on COVID countermeasures, told Axios.

  • "But our view is, we reduce the risk of individual cases becoming clusters or spreading events," McCloskey said in an interview before the recent COVID cases were identified.
  • McCloskey, who is formerly the director of Global Health for Public Health England and held the lead role in planning for the Olympic Games London 2012, said he consulted a panel of experts ranging from those who've held large sporting events in the last year and those from Disney's theme parks, to compile the most effective prevention measures.
  • All safety plans were made to hold the Olympics in the absence of any vaccinations, he said. With an expected 85% vaccination rate among delegations traveling to the games, there will be an extra layer of safety, he said.

But, in just one example of lingering disagreements over the safety of the upcoming Games, U.S.-based infectious disease experts say the playbooks detailing safety protocols fail to adequately focus on the aerosol transmission of COVID.

  • Among their concerns: proper ventilation and recommendations that, in some cases, point to the use of air conditioning or opening windows for ventilation.
  • "Notably, air conditioning is not ventilation," wrote Annie Sparrow, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, and Lisa Brosseau, a bioaerosol scientist and research consultant.
  • McCloskey said many of the buildings in the Olympic Village are brand new and, thus already use an "exchange ventilation system that brings in fresh air from outside and vents the stale air from inside. That's part of the Japanese building standard."
  • He acknowledged older buildings that will be in use won't meet those standards and said they'll substitute as best they can with fans, opening windows and "bringing in [portable] mechanical machines that exchange the air."

Bottom line: With the Games just a few days away and delegations in Tokyo, we'll have to expect news of more cases of COVID but will have to wait and see how well those plans truly contained the virus' spread.

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