Sport officials in Canada are asking Canadian athletes traveling to Japan to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics to get priority access to the vaccination program and receive two doses before leaving for Tokyo.
“If most Canadians need to get the vaccine by Canada Day, at least a first injection, then why don’t we take care of these, not just the athletes, but also the coaches and staff of support, which go into a potential Petri dish? David Bedford, CEO of Athletics Canada, told CBC Sports.
Bedford said it was in Canada’s “national interest” to have all athletes and support staff vaccinated because they represent the country on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
“We are not asking for something that is not happening all over the world. Even Kenya has vaccinated its athletes,” he said. “I would love to see the government say it is in the national interest, these athletes represent all of us, so let’s take care of that so that everyone is safe and healthy.”
On Tuesday, the Australian government said all of its athletes and support staff would be vaccinated, ahead of many others, to allow them to compete safely at the Games. Many other countries have also done the same.
“It has to be a lot more urgent because time is running out,” said John Atkinson, High Performance Director for Swimming Canada. “We must do whatever we can do as a nation to provide them with the safest experience while representing our country.”
Atkinson also called on the government and the Canadian Olympic Committee to vaccinate athletes as soon as possible.
“It’s different now than it was earlier in the pandemic,” Atkinson said. “And by that I mean there are variations. We must leave nothing to chance to protect the health of every member of the team representing Canada.
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Calls for Canadian athletes to receive priority vaccines follow Wednesday’s second “playbook” announcement by the International Olympic Committee.
As parts of Japan, including Tokyo, are in a state of emergency and a third wave ravages the country, the IOC has unveiled its second of three manuals outlining how it will attempt to protect athletes and support staff during the Tokyo Games.
The biggest change from the first playbook, released in February, is that athletes will now be tested daily, one change every four days, and will be required to provide two negative tests before leaving their home country for the Games.
Other restrictions include athletes, coaches and support staff will not be allowed to use public transport and will have to eat in specific places with special hygiene measures.
Vaccines are not mandatory and while athletic officials in Canada demand priority treatment, the Canadian Olympic Committee says its stance has not changed on vaccines.
“We maintain that Canada’s front-line workers and the most vulnerable populations should be the priority for vaccinations,” said David Shoemaker, COC CEO. “With the increasing number of vaccines available to Canadians, we hope athletes will have access to them before Tokyo, which would provide an additional layer of protection to the important countermeasures that have been put in place.”
Earlier this year, when the athlete vaccination debate erupted in Canada, many Olympic athletes made it clear that they didn’t feel comfortable skipping the line to get the jab.
Georgia Simmerling travels to Tokyo to compete in cycling competitions and has competed in three previous Games. She says she doesn’t feel comfortable skipping the line ahead of other Canadians who urgently need the vaccine.
“This is serious business”
“I don’t think jumping through loopholes in terms of cutting the lines with people who serve others and work in healthcare doesn’t need to happen,” Simmerling said. “If we could get the vaccines the right way before we left, I think that would be a great idea and something that would only improve our safety.”
Infectious disease specialist Dr Isaac Bogoch said upgrades to the testing manual are an improvement, but he adds that the plan is still not foolproof and is not immune to epidemics during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“This is serious business. We are admitting younger and younger people to the hospital all the time,” he told CBC Sports. “That’s the real deal. We know how to control this infection. It’s done. If you have the resources available, it’s much easier to control.”
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Bogoch said the timeline of when a person contracts the virus is an important education on how COVID-19 is spread.
“Let’s say someone is exposed to COVID, it can take anywhere from two to five days for people to start shedding the virus,” he said.
Bogoch said this means an athlete could test negative twice before leaving but be positive upon arriving in Tokyo due to the incubation period.
Earlier this week, Canadian tennis star Bianca Andreescu revealed that she tested positive for COVID-19 despite two negative tests before leaving for an event in Madrid.
“You are still incubating the virus but you might have a negative swab,” Bogoch said. “If you test positive, you can shed the virus for several days after infection. Positive cases should be isolated for 10 days. If you are exposed to a positive case, you can do frequent testing to see if people will get COVID.
“The goal is to be able to detect positive COVID tests very, very early on where maybe people are positive but are not passing it on as much because you caught it early. It’s not perfect but it helps and can help prevent an epidemic. “
While testing plays an important role, Bogoch said vaccination is another key piece of the Games safety puzzle. More than 15,000 athletes between the Olympic and Paralympic Games will compete.
“Even though vaccines aren’t perfect for stopping COVID-19, they’re still a huge benefit. “
“Vaccinations for all athletes,” Bogoch said. “We are in the age of vaccines. It is not foolproof but again it is serious. The worrisome variants are more transmissible.”