HomeScienceOlympic COVID bubble already “broken” with 71 cases, 3 in athlete village

Olympic COVID bubble already “broken” with 71 cases, 3 in athlete village

A barge carrying the Olympic Rings crosses Tokyo Bay.
Enlarge / A barge carrying the Olympic Rings crosses Tokyo Bay.

The number of COVID-19 cases linked to the Tokyo Olympics has risen to 71, with at least three cases confirmed within the Olympic Village that is housing athletes, according to reports out of Japan.

At least one public health expert says the rising case count indicates that the protective COVID bubble designed around the games has already burst days before the international sporting event even starts.

Olympics organizers said Tuesday that the tally hit 71, including 31 international travelers who had arrived in Tokyo to compete or work at the games, the Associated Press reports. The count also includes Olympic-accredited contractors and volunteers in Japan who have tested positive for the pandemic coronavirus.

At least three cases have popped up within the Olympic Village among the South African soccer team, including two players and one official. Twenty-one people linked to those cases are now quarantining, according to The New York Times.

Additionally, US Olympic officials confirmed Monday that Missourian Kara Eaker, an alternate on the women’s gymnastics team, became infected despite being vaccinated. She tested positive while training in Chiba prefecture outside Tokyo and has gone into a 10- to 14-day quarantine. She is said to be feeling fine. Another US gymnastics alternate, Leanne Wong, is also under quarantine due to close contact.

Bursting bubble

The Times noted that there have been reports that Czech Republic volleyball player Ondřej Perušič also tested positive in the Olympic Village. Additionally, eight travelers from Britain are quarantining—including six athletes and two Olympics staff members—after a person on their flight into Tokyo tested positive at the airport.

“It’s obvious that the bubble system is kind of broken,” Kenji Shibuya, the former director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, told Reuters Tuesday. “My biggest concern is, of course, there will be a cluster of infections in the village or some of the accommodation and interaction with local people.”

Shibuya expressed concern for limited testing among people on the fringes of the Olympic bubble as well as difficulty controlling individual people’s movements and interactions. For example, a Ugandan weightlifter already went missing from his training camp in Osaka prefecture and turned up days later in a town 100 miles away. Officials realized he was missing when he didn’t show up for his daily coronavirus test.

Though the cases identified so far are among tens of thousands of people working on the games, the presence of the hyper-transmissible delta coronavirus variant and the continued mixing of people risk fueling outbreaks that could mushroom out of the city. It’s a concern that has been raised repeatedly by health experts in Japan. The situation has also raised questions about whether the Olympic organizers have put profits from the games above the health and safety of residents and athletes.

Tokyo is currently under a state of emergency due to COVID-19 cases, which continue to climb upward. On Saturday alone, Tokyo logged 1,400 new cases. The area hasn’t seen a daily count that high since its largest COVID-19 surge in January, which peaked with around 2,500 daily new cases. Only about 22 percent of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated. Health officials have already banned both domestic and foreign fans from attending the games.

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