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National View: Olympic dreams are threatened by a COVID-19 nightmare

From the column: "Olympic organizers are following the science and taking as many precautions as possible to make the event safe."

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Dave Whamond / Cagle Cartoons

Every four years the Summer Olympics bring the world together. Through boycotts and terrorist attacks, the Olympics have persisted, yielding only to World War I and World War II. Athletes, some who’ve spent most of their lives preparing for the moment, come together to represent their countries and test themselves against the best in the world. Spectators from around the globe also descend on the host country, spending millions of dollars.

The Olympic Games are of great global significance; but, during a global pandemic, bringing people together from across the globe could prove as problematic as beneficial.

COVID-19 has tested the world in ways previously unimaginable to many people. Arguably, an event that raises the world’s spirits is exactly what’s needed after months of lockdowns and more than 4 million lives lost. Although there was a strong case to be made for postponing or canceling the Tokyo Olympics, when athletes and officials began arriving in Japan, the Olympic ship sailed.

Japan and the Olympic Games organizers took some important steps to help make the Games less risky. In March, organizers announced spectators from international locations would not be allowed during the Games. And on July 8, they announced that no spectators would be allowed to attend most events. By limiting attendees to only staff, press, contractors, volunteers, and competitors, the organizers mitigated one of the most risky aspects of the Games.

The logistics of testing, or even just temperature-checking, every person who enters a venue would be almost insurmountable. Even requiring vaccinations would be impractical, since Japan’s vaccination rate as of early July was only around 26%. Despite the lost revenue from ticket sales, Tokyo Olympic organizers did the right thing for public health by removing spectators from the equation.

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Although vaccination is not required to participate in the Games, organizers projected that greater than 80% of Olympic and Paralympic Village residents would be vaccinated ahead of the Games. With the high efficacy of vaccines and a large proportion of participants being vaccinated, the risk of a superspreader event is greatly diminished.

The Olympic Games organizers also released a series of playbooks to help ensure the Games are as safe as possible. Mandatory masking and encouraging good hygiene measures and social distancing, when possible, are some of the basic measures included in the playbooks. The playbooks also outline how frequently different participants must be tested for COVID-19 while in Japan. Athletes and anyone with regular interaction with the athletes must be tested daily.

Additionally, anyone arriving in Japan for the Olympics has had to show proof of two negative COVID-19 tests on two separate days within 96 hours of departure and at the airport at arrival. To facilitate contact tracing and limit movement, participants must submit an “Activity Plan” that details all planned and possible destinations for the first 14 days in Japan and download two smartphone apps that record daily health checks and notify participants of potential contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Although cases can still slip through these precautions, these measures should catch most cases and minimize spread.

The reality is that COVID-19 is not going to disappear. Even after large-scale surges stop occurring, there will be smaller outbreaks to contend with for many years. Because of this, we have to learn to live with COVID-19 as best as possible.

The so-called “Swiss Cheese Model” of pandemic defense is one way to accomplish this. The Swiss Cheese Model demonstrates how, although no one method perfectly prevents infections, when you combine multiple methods, there are fewer “holes” for the virus to slip through and cause new cases. Olympic organizers are applying this model by using testing, masking, social distancing, vaccinations, and other tactics to add layers of protection during the events. Olympic organizers have an opportunity to show how proper planning and leadership can mitigate risks, when eliminating risk is impossible.

There will be, inevitably, cases and likely small outbreaks of COVID-19 during the Tokyo Olympic Games. It is simply unrealistic to expect anything else when bringing thousands of people together from around the world during a pandemic. Fortunately, the Olympic organizers are following the science and taking as many precautions as possible to make the event safe for Tokyo’s residents and Olympic participants.

Chelsea Boyd is a harm reduction fellow at the R Street Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.

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Chelsea Boyd

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