Japan added to 'do not travel' list amid COVID-19 surge: What we know about Tokyo Olympics

·5 min read

The opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics is less than two months away, but plenty of questions remain about how host nation Japan will manage the large-scale event despite public health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

An influx of thousands of athletes, coaches and media members to the country –currently dealing with challenges to the health care system it had yet to encounter during the pandemic – will only complicate the situation.

The Olympics run from July 23 to Aug. 8, and the Paralympics will take place from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

As sports and life look to be on the verge of a return to normal in the United States, here is a look at the situation in Japan:

Current coronavirus statistics in Japan

Japan reported 4,590 new COVID-19 cases and 76 deaths over the last 24 hours, according to the most recent data from the World Health Organization.

In total, 12,312 individuals have died from coronavirus in Japan. The death rate from infection has increased to levels seen over the winter and hospitals are starting to reach capacities in some parts of the country.

State of emergency to be extended

A state of emergency regarding the pandemic is currently in effect in nine prefectures, including Tokyo. Those orders went into effect on April 25 and were set to expire on May 11, but the deadline was pushed to May 31.

The state of emergency is expected to be extended until either June 13 or June 20, according to the Japan Times and the Kyodo News.

People who are against the Tokyo 2020 Olympics set to open in July, march around Tokyo's National Stadium during an anti-Olympics demonstration Sunday, May 9, 2021.
People who are against the Tokyo 2020 Olympics set to open in July, march around Tokyo's National Stadium during an anti-Olympics demonstration Sunday, May 9, 2021.

Fourth wave triggers 'a collapse'

A "fourth wave" is presenting problems in Japan and can be attributed to a combination of infectious COVID-19 variants, relaxed restrictions and a slow vaccination rollout. In Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, the director of a hospital told Reuters "simply put, this a collapse of the medical system."

The hospitalization rate in Osaka is 14 percent, per Reuters, while it is 37 percent in Tokyo. At one point last week, 96 percent of the 348 hospital beds reserved in Osaka for serious virus cases were in use. Still, over 80 percent of the beds are occupied, according to the Kyodo News.

With doctors citing a variant from England as a factor, fears of variants originating from different places with high spread — India, for example — are cause for concern among doctors.

"The Olympics should be stopped," said Akira Takasu, Osaka Medical and Pharmaceutical University Hospital head of emergency. " ... This may be a trigger for another disaster this summer."

U.S. State Department advises against travel to Japan

The U.S. State Department raised Japan to "Level 4 - do not travel" on Monday due to COVID-19, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated a "very high" level of coronavirus and recommended not traveling to the country.

The State Department said the pandemic continues to pose "unprecedented risks'' to travelers: "In light of those risks, the Department of State strongly recommends U.S. citizens reconsider all travel abroad.''

The United States Olympics and Paralympic Committee said Monday after learning of the new travel advisory: "We feel confident that the current mitigation practices in place for athletes and staff by both the USOPC and the Tokyo Organizing Committee, coupled with the testing before travel, on arrival in Japan, and during Games time, will allow for safe participation of Team USA athletes this summer."

What does that mean for the Tokyo Olympics?

IOC vice president John Coates was asked by a member of the Japanese media last week if the Tokyo Olympics would go on even under a state of emergency.

"Absolutely, yes," he responded.

The decision of whether to hold the Games rests with the IOC, even as the Games might be unpopular among the host country's residents. Recent public opinion polls have shown between 60 to 80 percent of respondents disapproving of holding the Olympics in July in light of the public health situation.

"We are moving full ahead," IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said earlier this month, prior to the most recent state of emergency extension. "There has been a small extension of the emergency situation (in Japan), but we continue to plan for full Games. That’s the way it has to be, and that’s the only way it can be for us."

No foreign fans will be allowed at the competition venues.

Mass vaccination sites open in Tokyo, Osaka

Japan lags behind other developed nations in vaccination rate, with less than five percent of the population taking one shot and around two percent fully vaccinated.

The country took a step forward when the Moderna vaccine was approved (it had been only using Pfizer shots) by the government Friday, according to The Mainichi, and two state-run vaccination sites – one in Tokyo and one in Osaka – opened Monday. The Tokyo site can inoculate up to 10,000 individuals per day and 5,000 people can receive a shot per day in Osaka.

The current goal is for citizens 65 or older to be vaccinated by the end of July, right when the Games will be in full swing.

Do athletes have to be vaccinated?

No, but the IOC and USOPC are both strongly encouraging athletes – as well as anyone in the traveling party (coaches, trainers, officials) to be inoculated by the time of the Olympics. The IOC said it expects that more than 80 percent of the residents in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated.

Contributing: Tom Schad, USA TODAY; Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tokyo Olympics: What we know about Japan's COVID-19 fight, vaccines