How the Olympics’ COVID-19 Rules Will Make This Year’s Games Very Different

How the Olympics’ COVID-19 Rules Will Make This Year’s Games Very Different

by Sue Jones
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Holding the 2020 Olympics amid the COVID-19 pandemic will be a precarious balancing act—and will make these Games unlike any that have taken place before. The most obvious change is, of course, that the Games were delayed for a year due to the pandemic. (Yes, the 2020 Olympics are happening in 2021.) So how do we know it’s safe to hold the Olympics now? What’s changed since then?

“We’re in a very different position now than we were a year ago,” Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention at the Johns Hopkins Health System, tells SELF. “The most visible part of that is vaccines that have been shown to be safe and effective for preventing severe disease. That is really a game changer that allows events to happen more safely.”

In addition to the COVID-19 vaccines, we’ve also gained a significantly better understanding of the way the coronavirus spreads, particularly with regards to aerosolized particles (airborne transmission). That allows us to better safeguard against viral transmission at events like the Olympics, Dr. Maragakis says.

But that doesn’t mean that COVID-19 won’t be a worry in Tokyo. Here’s what you need to know about how the pandemic is changing the Games.

The state of COVID-19 in Japan right now

Since the pandemic began, nearly 15,000 people have died in Japan due to COVID-19, and there have been 821,000 infections, according to data from Reuters.

The country has administered more than 60 million vaccine doses, which suggests that about 23% of the population is fully vaccinated, Reuters says. Considering that only 2% of the country was vaccinated in late May, according to the BBC, that 23% represents huge progress in a short amount of time, which is likely the result of the government’s massive vaccination drive leading up to the Olympics.

But with case numbers rising in Tokyo, and the spread of several worrying coronavirus variants (including delta), organizers made the decision on July 9 to put a state of emergency in place in the city—along with even more safety protocols.

There are several major safety measures in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the Olympics.

As a result of the new state of emergency in Tokyo, no spectators will be allowed to watch the Olympics at venues in the prefecture in person. Some venues in areas outside of Tokyo followed suit in banning spectators from Olympic events being held there, while others are going ahead with a limited amount of visitors. And anyone at the Games—athletes, staff, the press, etc.—will have to follow many safety protocols at the Olympics to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For athletes, that will include wearing a mask at all times (except when eating, drinking, competing, or sleeping), minimizing interactions with others, minimizing physical contact with others, and avoiding enclosed spaces when possible, according to the Olympic playbook. Athletes will be encouraged not to yell or shout for their teammates while at the Olympics, and to instead cheer them on in other ways, like clapping.

Athletes will also undergo frequent COVID-19 testing, including before they leave for Tokyo, when they arrive, and daily while at the Games via saliva tests. Rapid tests like these are generally considered to be less accurate than PCR tests and can come with the potential for false-positive results (meaning someone tests positive for COVID-19 when they actually don’t have an infection). That’s why, if someone does test positive or has an inconclusive result with one of these tests, they’ll have to take a PCR test to confirm whether or not they actually have an infection.

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