The sports world, just days ahead of one of its premier global events, has been dealing with a significant and concerning number of Covid-19 cases.
There have been calls by some Japanese residents to cancel the Olympics, which are starting this week a year late due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sports teams and major events are being challenged by the recent number of positive tests. Here are some of the cases:
• The recent Copa America and European football championships saw teams lose players who couldn’t compete because of virus protocols.
• Six players on the New York Yankees tested positive for the virus last week, forcing the postponement of the first MLB game after the All-Star Game break and forcing a number of lineup changes in the contests that did take place. It wasn’t the first time the Yankees saw a cluster of cases.
• The Colorado Rockies announced Friday that several players, the manager and a coach would miss time because of MLB’s Covid-19 and contact tracing protocols
• The exhibition game for the US men’s hoops team that was scheduled for Friday was canceled after USA Basketball announced Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal will miss the Olympics and Jerami Grant of the Detroit Pistons was placed under the organization’s health and safety protocols.
• Two members of the South African men’s soccer team and a video analyst tested positive while at the Olympic Village. Now 21 team members considered close contacts of those athletes are in isolation or quarantine.
• Tennis players Alex de Minaur of Australia and Coco Gauff of the United States tested positive, meaning they wouldn’t compete in the Olympics.
• Katie Lou Samuelson, a member of the US Olympic 3x3 women’s basketball team, also will miss the Games because of Covid-19.
• On Sunday, Kara Eaker, an alternate on the US women’s gymnastics team, was placed in isolation after testing positive for the virus.
But is the significant number of cases a sign of Covid in the world around us, or is there something different about sports competitions?
“There’s not a lot of places we test as frequently as we do with professional sports and college sports,” Dr. Costi Sifri, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at the University of Virginia, told CNN on Monday.
He said it’s not a bad thing that frequent testing of athletes is picking up what have often been notable numbers of asymptomatic cases.
He said if he were an Olympic athlete, he would have gotten vaccinated – which is not mandated – but when he got to Tokyo he would act like he was unvaccinated.
“There are ways to do things safely,” he said, pointing to wearing a mask during high-risk situations and attending social events only if they are held outside.
The close proximity that athletes spend time in could be a breeding ground for infectious diseases, he said. It should be noted that vaccine programs vary in nations around the world, and not as much is known about some vaccines given in some countries, he added. And some teenage athletes might come from countries that don’t vaccinate people that age, he said.
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, reporting from Tokyo, said the Olympics bring a unique challenge. More than 11,000 athletes representing 206 national Olympic committees have come to an island nation that has seen a surge in cases.
There will be no influx of fans to the country, as events will have no spectators for the events in the Tokyo and the venues in nearby prefectures.
Athletes in Tokyo are being told to limit their movements to venues and the village. The rest of the strategy is the pillars of pandemic public health, the chair of Independent Expert Panel (IEP) for the International Olympic Committee told Gupta recently.
“Social distancing, physical distancing, wearing a mask and hand hygiene,” Olympic Games health adviser Dr. Brian McCloskey said. “They were always at the fundamental core of what we knew would reduce the risk of Covid during the Games. And then we started a layer on top of that, the testing strategy that we might have.”
He told Olympics reporters Monday he thought the Covid-19 numbers were “actually extremely low, they are probably lower than we were expecting to see of anything.”
Competition begins Wednesday and the opening ceremony is scheduled for Friday.
The Olympic Village is prepped with Covid-19 testing and health centers, with signs reminding residents to wear face masks and keep at least 1 meter (about 3.3 feet) away from each other. Athletes will be contact-traced and tested for Covid-19 daily; if they test positive, they are taken to an isolation facility outside the Olympic Village and will not be able to compete.
Dr. Amy Compton Phillips, chief clinical officer of Providence Health System, said officials are doing the right thing.
“They’re doing what one does with a novel pathogen when you want to contain it, not mitigate the spread, not, you know, slow down the spread, but stop it in its tracks,” she told CNN’s Jim Sciutto.
One thing that would help stymie the spread of the virus would be if all professional sports teams could persuade 100% of their eligible members to get vaccinated, Sifri said.
Major League Baseball and the player’s union agreed earlier this year to relax certain health and safety protocols for clubs that have a vaccination rate of 85% or greater.
The Yankees are one of 23 major league teams to have reached that threshold, a source with knowledge of the situation said. Before those protocols were modified, players were tested at least every other day.
But Sifri said the Delta and other variants are an elephant in the room.
“The new variants raise the question: Is that (85% threshold) still enough?” he said.
Teams need to tell unvaccinated members to social distance and wear face masks in the locker rooms, he said. They also need to try to understand why a team member is not vaccinated.
And what about the fans? Should spectators still wear a mask to an event? Sifri said he’d probably not wear one given the current situation.
“I’m comfortable enough knowing the efficacy of the vaccines and the biology of transmission with being outside without a mask,” he said.
But he added he would also factor in local data and trends in cases. What’s happening where he lives in Virginia, for example, might be better than another state where the numbers are concerning, he said.
CNN’s Kevin Dotson, Amir Vera, Jill Martin and Gawon Bae contributed to this report.