Sport officials in Canada are calling for Canadian athletes headed to Japan to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics to get priority access in the vaccination program and receive two doses prior to leaving for Tokyo.
“If most Canadians are going to be vaccinated by Canada Day, at least a first shot, then why wouldn’t we take care of these, not just athletes but coaches and support staff, that are going into a potential petri dish?” David Bedford, CEO of Athletics Canada, told CBC Sports.
Bedford said it’s in the “national interest” of Canada to have all athletes and support staff fully vaccinated as they are representing the country on the world’s largest athletic stage.
“We’re not asking for something that isn’t happening all over the world. Even Kenya has vaccinated their athletes,” he said. “I would love to see the government come out and say this is in the national interest, these athletes represent all of us so let’s get this taken care of so 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 needs to take much more of an urgency because the clock is ticking,” said John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director. “We have to do everything we can do as a nation to give them the safest experience while representing our country.”
Atkinson also called on the government and Canadian Olympic Committee to get athletes vaccinated as soon as possible.
“It’s different now than it was earlier in the pandemic,” Atkinson said. “And by that I mean there are variants. We have to leave nothing to chance to safeguard the health of every team member representing Canada.”
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The calls for Canadian athletes to receive priority vaccinations come in the wake of Wednesday’s second “playbook” announcement by the International Olympic Committee.
With parts of Japan, including Tokyo, in a state of emergency and a third wave ravaging the country, the IOC unveiled its second of three playbooks outlining how it will attempt to keep athletes and support staff safe during the Tokyo Games.
The biggest change from the first playbook, released in February, is that athletes will now be tested daily, a change from every four days, and have to provide two negative tests prior to leaving their home countries 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 locations with special hygiene measures.
Vaccinations are not mandatory and while sport officials in Canada are calling for priority treatment, the Canadian Olympic Committee says its position hasn’t changed on vaccines.
“We maintain that Canada’s front-line workers and most vulnerable populations should be the priority for vaccinations,” said David Shoemaker, CEO of the COC. “With the growing numbers of vaccines available to Canadians, we are hopeful that athletes will have access to them prior to Tokyo, which would provide an additional layer of protection to the significant countermeasures that have been put in place.”
Earlier this year when the athlete vaccinate debate flared up in Canada, many Olympic athletes made it clear they didn’t feel comfortable jumping the line to get the jab.
Georgia Simmerling is heading to Tokyo to compete in cycling and has attended three previous Games. She says she doesn’t feel comfortable jumping the queue ahead of other Canadians who need the vaccine more urgently.
‘This is serious business’
“I don’t think jumping through any loopholes in terms of cutting lines with people who are serving others and working in healthcare, that doesn’t need to take place,” Simmerling said. “If we were able to get the vaccines in the proper manner before we left I think that would be a great idea and something that would only enhance our safety.”
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch said the playbook upgrades in testing are an improvement, but he adds the plan is still not foolproof and not immune to outbreaks during the Olympics and Paralympics.
“This is serious business. We are admitting younger and younger people to hospital all the time,” he told CBC Sports. “This is the real deal. We know how to control this infection. It’s been done. If you have the resources available it’s much easier to control.”
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Bogoch said the timeline of when someone contracts the virus is an important education on how COVID-19 spreads.
“Let’s say someone is exposed to COVID, it can be anywhere from two to five days before people start shedding the virus,” he said.
Bogoch said that means an athlete could test negative twice before leaving but be positive upon arriving in Tokyo because of the incubation period.
Earlier this week, Canadian tennis star Bianca Andreescu revealed she tested positive for COVID-19 despite having two negative tests before leaving for an event in Madrid.
“You’re still incubating the virus but you could have a negative swab,” Bogoch said. “If you’re positive, you can shed virus for many days after the infection. Positive cases need to isolate for 10 days. If you’re exposed to a positive case, you can do frequent testing to determine if people will get COVID.
“The goal is to be able to pick up COVID positive tests very, very early where perhaps people are positive but aren’t transmitting it as much because you caught it early. It’s not perfect but it helps and can help prevent an outbreak.”
While testing plays an important role, Bogoch said being vaccinated is another key piece of the safety puzzle at the Games. More than 15,000 athletes between the Olympics and Paralympics will be competing.
“Even if the vaccines aren’t perfect in stopping COVID-19, they’re still a tremendous benefit.”
“Vaccinations for all athletes,” Bogoch said. “We’re in the vaccine era. It’s not foolproof but again this is serious. The variants of concern are more transmissible.”