Olympics-Health experts warn of Olympic COVID-19 threat, prefer no spectators

A general view of the Olympic Stadium (National Stadium) in Tokyo, Japan, June 17, 2021. REUTERS / Pawel Kopczynski

  • Omi Expert Report Says No Viewers Are The Least Risky Option
  • Hashimoto endorses upper limit of up to 10,000 in Olympic stadiums report
  • Final decision on viewers expected on Monday

TOKYO, June 18 (Reuters) – Japan’s leading medical experts warned Friday that hosting the Olympics during the COVID-19 pandemic could increase infections, saying banning all spectators is the least risky option to cause a possible collision with the organizers.

The report, led by top health advisor Shigeru Omi, was released after the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee chief told Sankei newspaper that she wanted up to 10,000 spectators in the stadiums for the global sports extravaganza that begins July 23 , allow.

Japan is pushing ahead to host the multi-billion dollar delayed Games despite concerns over a further surge in COVID-19 infections and strong public opposition despite organizers banning overseas viewers.

Canceling the event – which was originally intended to showcase a revitalized nation after decades of doldrums – would be costly to organizers, the Tokyo government, sponsors and insurers.

“This event is different in scope and social interest from regular sporting events, and because it overlaps with the summer vacation… there is a risk that movement of people and opportunities for interaction during the Olympics will spread infection and put a strain on the medical system,” experts say said. “Holding on to games with no spectators is the least risky option and we think it is desirable.”

A final decision on domestic viewers will be made at a meeting that will take place on Monday between the Tokyo 2020 organizers, the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Area government.

“I want it to be held with viewers. I plan to go to the five-way meeting with this in mind,” the Sankei newspaper quoted Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto in an interview published late Thursday.

Hashimoto said Omi’s advice would influence talks between the IOC and others.

“NOT NORMAL”

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government on Thursday decided to relax emergency coronavirus restrictions in nine prefectures, including Tokyo, while maintaining some “quasi-emergency” restrictions.

Omi experts agreed earlier this week that the number of spectators at domestic events could increase to 10,000, but only in areas where “quasi-emergency” measures, including limiting restaurant opening times, have been lifted .

Tokyo is slated to be subject to lesser restrictions until July 11, after the state of emergency – the third since April last year – expires for the capital on June 20.

The lifting of previous emergencies has been followed by a new surge in infections and hospital burdens.

According to the expert report, organizers should be ready to act quickly to ban spectators or, if necessary, declare another state of emergency. It was also recommended that strict restrictions should be put in place when spectators are allowed, including those restricted to residents of the area.

Omi, a former World Health Organization official, is becoming increasingly clear about the risks the event could cause in spreading the virus. Earlier this month he told parliament it was “not normal” to hold the Games during a pandemic.

Hiroshi Nishiura, a professor at Kyoto University and epidemiology advisor on the government’s pandemic response who signed the Omi Recommendations, said he believed that canceling the Games would be best, but that decision is up to the government and the government the organizers.

“If the epidemic situation worsens, no spectators and a cancellation of the games in the middle of (the event) should be discussed,” he told Reuters.

Japan’s public remains concerned about the health risks. An NHK public television poll earlier this month found that 32% were in favor of viewing viewers, 29% didn’t want viewers and 31% wanted the games to be canceled.

Japan has not seen the explosive outbreaks elsewhere, but a recent surge and initially slow adoption of vaccinations has raised concerns about the stresses on the medical system.

The country has recorded more than 776,000 cases and over 14,200 deaths while only 15% of its population received at least one COVID-19 vaccination.

Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka Editing by Chris Reese

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