Paralympic organizers foreshadow “very difficult situation” as Tokyo sees record high COVID-19 cases

86 cases of the virus linked to the Paralympic Games have been recorded four days before the opening ceremony – more than the number of Olympic-related cases at this point in time.

A visitor wearing a protective mask looks at an illuminated Paralympic symbol at the waterfront area of Odaiba Marine Park, ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games that have been postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan August 20, 2021  REUTERS/Issei Kato
A visitor wearing a protective mask looks at an illuminated Paralympic symbol at the waterfront area of Odaiba Marine Park, ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games that have been postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan August 20, 2021 REUTERS/Issei Kato

Organizers of the upcoming Paralympic Games have expressed concern that due to record high case levels of COVID-19 in Tokyo, holding the event safely will pose a significant challenge – perhaps even greater than the Olympic Games was a few weeks ago.

Speaking at a media roundtable on Friday about rising cases, Tokyo 2020 Games delivery officer Hidemasa Nakamura told reporters: “Looking at the medical situation, we cannot help but say we will hold the Paralympics in the middle of a very difficult situation… What do we do if we have a case becoming seriously ill, given the tight situation on hospital beds?”

The city of Tokyo has been experiencing unprecedented numbers of new daily COVID-19 infections in recent days, with 5,405 residents contracting the virus on Friday according to the local government. As reported by the Japan Times, hospital beds in the area have gotten to near-full capacity – nearly 1,000 Tokyo COVID-19 patients who requested an emergency ambulance service in the first week of August had to be turned away due to shortages.

Games organizers have thus been hampered in their abilities to reserve hospital beds in advance for symptomatic Paralympic officials and athletes. Newspaper Asahi Shimbun even reported that multiple area hospitals have declined requests by the organizing committee to provide additional emergency care for COVID-19 cases at the Games.

“It’s unthinkable to accept such a request when a response at the level of a natural disaster is required to contain the spread of the virus,” said Yuichi Hamabe, head of the Tertiary Emergency Medical Center at one such institution, Tokyo’s Bokutoh Hospital.

“The organizing committee made the request just before the Paralympics kick off. That shows it doesn’t think Games can be held safely. Concerned parties should quickly discuss whether to go ahead with the Paralympics.”

Asked about the possibility of athletes not being able to access hospital care as a result of these circumstances, Nakamura responded: “Nothing is fixed yet. We continue to have those communications with the medical facilities, so that we can control symptoms from advancing.”

“We need to have a contact flow in line and include the hospitals and medical facilities in that flow of contact. It’s really a matter of time – we need to make sure that sufficient communication is taken in a speedy manner”, he also mentioned in an earlier comment.

Further noting that COVID-19 protocols from the recently completed Olympics were highly effective in preventing clusters of cases, Nakamura nonetheless acknowledged that stricter measures would have to be taken for the Paralympics due to rising rates of infection and the greater vulnerability of many Paralympic athletes to the disease.

“For the Olympics, we followed the playbook, and as a result had no significant increase in the number of cases. Obviously, towards the Paralympics, the base is that we continue this”, Nakamura said, referring to the event’s successful masking, testing and quarantine protocols.

Tokyo 2020 Games Delivery Officer Hidemasa Nakamura gestures at a press conference following a roundtable on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) countermeasures at Tokyo 2020 Games in Tokyo, Japan,  June 11, 2021. Franck Robichon/Pool via REUTERS
Tokyo 2020 Games Delivery Officer Hidemasa Nakamura gestures at a press conference following a roundtable on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) countermeasures at Tokyo 2020 Games in Tokyo, Japan, June 11, 2021. Franck Robichon/Pool via REUTERS

“But on the other hand, regarding the Paralympics… First, Para-athletes, compared to Olympic athletes, have the risk of having more serious symptoms, and so we need to be even more careful. Second, the state of infection today is different from how it was before the Olympics. It has deteriorated, and the local medical situation is also very tight.”

“So the Olympic COVID-19 countermeasures will continue to be followed for the Paralympics but additional countermeasures will be required”, Nakamura concluded. Among other things, he stated that testing regimens for officials would be more thorough and urged Games officials to avoid eating out and drinking alcohol in public.

As of August 20th, 85 COVID-19 cases among Paralympic Games officials and media have been recorded four days before the opening ceremony, while only one athlete so far has tested positive. 12 of those cases, including the athlete’s, were newly reported on the 20th. The first case to occur in the Athletes’ Village was also detected the day before.

In comparison, 546 total cases were linked with the entirety of the Olympics, an event with more than double the number of participants involved. Four days before the start of the Olympic opening ceremony on July 23rd, only 58 total cases had been reported; fewer than the number of Paralympic-related cases at this point in time.

This year’s Paralympic Games will be held without spectators just like their Olympic counterpart, as Tokyo shall remain under a state of health emergency until at least September 12th.

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