Mon, September 27, 2021

international

Tokyo covid playbook offers a lesson for Beijing 2022 Olympics


Covid cases soared in Japan as it hosted the Tokyo Olympics in July and August, raising the obvious question: Was the global event, which brought thousands of athletes and other people to the city, responsible?

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There's still more research to be done, but early indications suggest the Olympic influx had little direct impact on infections in Japan. Participants were tested on arrival and daily thereafter. They were banned from shopping, sightseeing and public transport and encouraged to leave promptly after their events. In the end, games organizers reported a 0.03% positivity rate from their testing, far lower than the current average of 23.6% in Tokyo as a whole.

The containment measures employed by event, delayed by a year and held in largely empty venues as a safety precaution, became a model for the Paralympics, which start this week. It also sets a precedent for the 2022 Beijing Olympics, which begin in six months.

"As scientists, we haven't actually gathered statistics, but what's clear to me is that the infections at the marathon, at the stadium, at the venues -- there were some -- are not related to the current surge in cases," Shigeru Omi, head of the Japanese government's virus advisory panel, told reporters Aug. 12.

In the end, the bubble may have actually protected Olympians from the highly contagious delta variant spreading in Tokyo. Even though the city was under a state of emergency during the games, analysis of GPS data from X-Locations Inc. found that the levels of activity in some of the most popular shopping and entertainment districts was little changed from the same time period in 2020, when Japan wasn't under a state of emergency.

That's a sign that the state of emergency didn't have the desired effect, though activity levels did drop during the games compared with the period immediately before. Staging the games in Tokyo may have diluted the "stay at home" message and prompted people to drop their guards, potentially contributing to the spread among the population.

"The government canceled the Olympics last summer because it was not safe," said Holley Wilkin, an associate professor of health communication at Georgia State University. "By holding them this summer they are sending a message that it is safe now. This could have influenced beliefs about the seriousness and threat of covid-19," she added.

That muddled message came just as the highly infectious delta variant that's propelling the current surge around the world began to take hold in Japan. At the same time, local and national government resources were focused on the Olympics and containing the perceived threat of international arrivals.

"When it comes to the movement of people, there's a debate about whether the staging of the Olympics affected people's perceptions," government adviser Omi said. "We think it did."

Many businesses continue to flout the rules of Japan's current state of emergency, which essentially obliges bars and restaurants in Tokyo and some other areas to stop serving alcohol, and to close by 8 p.m. Without binding restrictions on individuals' behavior, government coaxing has become less and less effective at persuading people to stay home.

Though the situation may be very different by the time the Olympics open in Beijing, the early data seem to validate Japan's decision to ban spectators from the event. Whether for sports, concerts or anything else, mass gatherings are known to stoke viral spread. Earlier this year, a public health leader at the World Health Organization criticized the Union of European Football Associations for allowing spectators at the European Championship, culminating with a final in a packed Wembley stadium.

Beijing organizers haven't made a decision on spectators. Tickets haven't gone on sale yet. That's prudent, said S.V. Mahadevan, director of South Asia Outreach at the Center for Asian Health Research and Education at Stanford University Medical Center.

"It's too hard to know what is going to happen in six months," he said. "Whether the virus will continue to mutate and cause additional waves or if it's something where we finally achieve herd immunity because delta is so ubiquitous and it has infected everyone."

It's also possible the Olympics may have had a palliative effect in Japan, offering a much-needed dose of excitement for a pandemic-weary public, according to Nobuhiko Okabe, who heads a health research center in Kawasaki and acted as a pandemic adviser to the Tokyo Olympics organizers.

"I'm not saying it deserves a gold medal, but I think it creates a reference point for the future," he said. "I think we can call that a kind of success."

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Japan and the IOC for doing their best to minimize the dangers. "Nobody should expect zero risk," he said last month. "There will always be a risk and there is no zero risk in life."

Published : August 23, 2021

By : Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Isabel Reynolds, Michelle Fay Cortez, Grace Huang