Olympics-Japanese medics welcome bar on spectators but warn risks remain

·3-min read
An Olympic rings monument is pictured in the waterfront area at Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo

By Rocky Swift and Ju-min Park

TOKYO (Reuters) - Medical experts in Japan welcomed a decision to hold the Tokyo Olympics without spectators under coronavirus restrictions but cautioned that the ban will not completely eliminate the risk of a rebound in COVID-19 cases.

The ban was formalised on Thursday as Japan struggles to stem a new wave of infections with a state of emergency in Tokyo that will end after the July 23-Aug. 8 event.

"I, of course, support 'no spectators' but concerns will never disappear as long as we have a big event, like the Games, along with holidays and the vacation season," said Yuki Furuse, a Kyoto University medical professor working with the government's coronavirus experts group.

Public viewings of the Games have been cancelled and restaurants will be asked to stop serving alcohol under the state of emergency.

But still, medical staff warn that risks from people's behaviour around Olympic events, like drinking and dining together, were tougher to control than those inside the venues.

"It's not hard to imagine that a lot of people will be in high spirits after the Games and want to have a drink with others," said Fumie Sakamoto, the infection control manager at St Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo.

"There will be a lot of opportunities for virus transmission outside the venues."

Overseas fans had already been barred from attending the Games, delayed by a year because of the pandemic. Last month, a group of top health advisers said that an Olympics without any spectators would be the "least risky" option.

On Thursday, the host city Tokyo marked 896 new daily cases, near highs last reached in mid-May. Furuse recently projected that new cases in Tokyo could rise to 1,000 in July and 2,000 in August, potentially exhausting the supply of hospital beds in the capital region.

CONCERNS OVER "BUBBLE"

Masahiro Kami, the head of the Medical Governance Research Institute think tank, said he was worried an Olympics "bubble", within which organisers pledged to organise the Games, might not be completely tight.

He said staff servicing the Games were under no obligation to be fully vaccinated and would not be tested every time they enter and exit venues, creating opportunities for coronavirus infections to spill out.

Aside from those concerns, holding the world's biggest sporting event under an emergency declaration seems "out of place" when many Tokyo residents and small business owners bear the brunt of the financial pain, said Yutaka Shoji, director of the Tokyo Sakura Hospital.

The state of emergency in Japan does not mean a hard lockdown as in other countries, but businesses that refuse to shorten their hours or close face penalties.

"As a medical worker, I think no spectators is better. Still, the government needs to fully explain to people why we are having the Olympics at all," Shoji said.

A hospital doctor treating COVID-19 patients and victims of a recent deadly landslide said he was thankful for the decision to hold the Games without spectators.

"I want to say 'thanks', because it means risks are lower," said Youichi Yanagawa, who is being seconded to work as an Olympics medic at two cycling venues southwest of Tokyo.

"But, many people, athletes, coaches, and media crew are still coming in from overseas, so considering the variants, I am still very worried if the virus is explosively spreading again here," Yanagawa said.

(Reporting by Rocky Swift, and Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Rob Birsel and Antoni Slodkowski)

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