THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
August 9, 2021 at 15:25 JST
Olympic organizers praised themselves for holding a “safe and secure” Summer Games in Tokyo, but many outside the “bubble” said the event only fueled the record-setting spread of the novel coronavirus around Japan.
Hidemasa Nakamura, the Tokyo 2020 Games’ delivery officer, said at a news conference on Aug. 7 that the rate of positive COVID-19 tests among people involved with the Games was low.
Athletes and Olympic-related people underwent a total of 600,000 tests, and 138 had tested positive for the virus as of Aug. 6, Nakamura said.
The positivity rate, at 0.02 percent, was “evidence that the Olympics have been held safely and securely,” he said.
Under health protocols, athletes and Olympic-related officials were supposed to stay within the “bubble” to prevent a possible spread of infections to the public.
Outside of that bubble, the number of new COVID-19 cases reported over the 17-day sports event exceeded 170,000 around the nation, putting a further strain on health care workers.
Although the bubble may have limited direct contact between Olympians and the public, it could not contain the festive atmosphere of the Games.
Some health experts said it was only natural for members of the public to want to join the festivities of the sports extravaganza that was approved by their government.
“I cannot deny that the Olympics have had an indirect impact on the (virus surge),” said Nobuhiko Okabe, head of the Kawasaki City Institute for Public Health who served as a special adviser to the Cabinet on infection controls for the Games.
“People can’t help but prioritize a party-like mood,” Okabe said. “The fact that people’s defenses are down poses a risk.”
On Aug. 7, the eve of the Closing Ceremony, an alarm frequently sounded at Yokohama Rosai Hospital, informing nurses that a patient’s blood-oxygen level has decreased.
“Why in the world do they have to hold the Olympics now?” one of the nurses said.
The hospital in Yokohama’s Kohoku Ward has made 32 beds available for COVID-19 patients with moderate and severe symptoms, and 31 were filled on that night.
Although staff were busy monitoring and treating the COVID-19 patients, Ryo Takeshita, a 34-year-old emergency medical doctor, had to leave the hospital.
He picked up an ID for the Olympics and headed for the nearby International Stadium Yokohama, where the men’s soccer final was about to kick off.
He had been assigned to work at a first-aid station at the venue.
“I like soccer, and I’m not opposed to holding the Olympics,” he said. “But the hospital is facing a tough time. I can’t help but think, ‘Should I really go?’”
Two days earlier, Takeshita was on duty at the emergency room of the hospital.
During his overnight shift, the ER received 20 phone calls requesting admittance for COVID-19 patients.
“It was an abnormal situation,” he said.
The ER often received multiple requests at the same time. Staff had to ask ambulance crews about each patient’s condition and then give priority to those with more severe symptoms.
“I just prayed that the patients who were turned down could hang on at their homes,” Takeshita said.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has denied the possibility that the Tokyo Olympics were related to the skyrocketing number of new COVID-19 cases.
He insisted that the movement of people in busy areas of Tokyo “has not increased from the pre-Olympics period.”
The Tokyo metropolitan government and the International Olympic Committee have echoed that view.
But sharp increases in congestion of pedestrian traffic have been recorded.
According to GPS data of NTT Docomo based on smartphone usage outdoors, an estimated 5,200 people were around the National Stadium at noon on July 23, when Blue Impulse, the Air Self-Defense Force’s aerobatics team, flew over Tokyo to celebrate the opening of the Olympics.
That number was up by 3,000 from the weekly average until then.
The congestion continued into the night when the Opening Ceremony was held at the National Stadium.
During the Olympics, crowds formed around competition venues from time to time, even though spectators were largely banned from attending.
Well after the start of the Olympic competitions, the virus was spreading so rapidly in Japan that the government extended the COVID-19 state of emergency for Tokyo and placed three surrounding prefectures, as well as Osaka Prefecture, under that declaration.
However, many bars and restaurants have defied government requests to stop serving alcohol, and Olympics-watching drinking parties have been seen and heard around Tokyo.
“Why didn’t the central government send a strong message, such as shutting down commercial facilities, when it issued a state of emergency?” Koji Wada, a professor at the International University of Health and Welfare, asked.
“If it hesitated to do so because of the Olympics, the impact is huge,” he said.
(This article was written by Takashi Endo, Midori Iki, Naoyuki Himeno and Yuki Edamatsu.)
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