Olympics on high alert: Hazmat suits, isolation centers, midnight knocks at the door

The knock came in the middle of the night, a pounding on the door that awakened an NBC Sports employee who had triggered COVID protocols in Beijing.

Once the hotel room door opened, the employee was immediately taken by hazmat-wearing officials to a dedicated vehicle which whisked them away to a so-called “isolation center.” The employee’s new home, where they would have to wait and test their way out of, was dubbed by one source as “a one-star Chinese hotel.”

That employee is just one of several international journalists and workers at the Beijing Games who have found themselves ensnared in China’s strict Olympic COVID protocols, facing isolation for a week or more until they can negative-test their way to freedom. The Games are set to open Feb. 4.

NBC has declined to comment beyond a statement to Yahoo Sports: “Out of the hundreds of staff we have on site, a small number have tested positive and per the published [Beijing Olympic] Playbook protocols have had to quarantine.”

Elsewhere, two employees of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who had tested negative prior to boarding their flights to Beijing were tested on arrival and, based on the results, were promptly routed into isolation. One of the employees spent approximately eight days in isolation, the second for nine days and counting as of Monday evening.

“CBC/Radio-Canada had two employees in isolation in Beijing as a result of COVID protocols in place upon their arrival,” the CBC said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “One is no longer in isolation and we expect the other to be out of isolation soon; both are asymptomatic and feeling well. Our team in Beijing will continue to follow the protocols put in place by the host country, as they evolve.”

The combination of China’s strict COVID protocols — dubbed “COVID Zero” in an effort to squash all cases of the virus, including the highly contagious Omicron variant that has begun to sweep across the country anyway — are combining to put the Olympics on edge. Just clearing up a false positive can take three days, leaving athletes terrified of being knocked out of competitions they’ve trained their entire life for, even if they are asymptomatic.

“Everyone is just worried about getting there,” Team USA curler Matt Hamilton told Yahoo Sports. “What if you catch it on the way? You work so hard for so many years to reach the Olympics and then you wouldn’t be able to play.”

Olympic workers in hazmat suits work at a credential validation desk at the Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Olympic workers in hazmat suits work at a credential validation desk at the Beijing Capital International Airport ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

While the visual of Chinese authorities pulling people out of their beds — or at the very least, out of lines and waiting rooms at airports — and into spartan isolation facilities may seem jarring, it is almost certain to be repeated during these Olympics.

Everyone entering the “closed loop” of the Beijing Olympics must pass a battery of tests to get in, and must keep passing them every day they’re in the country. One confirmed positive, regardless of symptoms — or even, potentially, a close contact with someone who tests positive — and it’s off to an isolation facility.

The isolation centers, which will host those who trigger the protocols, are, even by the Beijing 2022 Playbook’s description, somewhere between drab and concerning. They must be approximately 25 square meters — about 269 square feet, a little smaller than an average hotel room — in size, have a window that can provide “access to fresh air,” and feature wifi, although the level of restrictions on wifi is left unsaid. Anyone stuck in one will get served three meals a day and access to “mental health support,” but “will not be allowed to go outside.” Athletes can get training equipment, “if available.”

To be released from an isolation center, an isolated individual who tested positive can be released after 10 days of isolation provided they are asymptomatic and pass PCR tests for three straight days. Due to the sensitivity of PCR tests, it is not uncommon for COVID patients who never show any symptoms to still come up positive weeks or even months later. The unreliability of PCR tests has led many U.S. doctors to suggest using antigen tests, if testing is needed at all. Major sports leagues in America allow athletes to return within five days of a positive test if they are showing no symptoms.

“After 10 days, if you PCR [test], that is just detecting dead soldiers, remnants of the virus that have persisted in your system,” said Bill Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt. “It does not mean that you are infectious.”

That would be of little solace, and likely great frustration, to anyone caught in China’s COVID protocols.

In its zeal to stamp out the virus, China has routinely blocked off and effectively shut down major cities, including a recent month-long lockdown of Xian with its population of 13 million. The New York Times reported Friday that officials recently made 200 people stay in an office building for 58 hours due to a single close contact in the building. On Monday, the country ordered mandatory testing for some 2 million residents in a section of Beijing.

The threat of isolation is substantial enough that NBC determined it would be better to keep its broadcasters in the United States to call the action remotely rather than risk getting caught up in protocols. ESPN also has pulled its reporting team from traveling to China, and the CBC is sending a slightly pared-down party to cover the Games on site. Other media organizations are still debating whether to send journalists to China just days before planes are scheduled to depart.

The greatest concern is for the athletes who have trained a lifetime to compete.

If COVID is able to spread within the Olympic community, then an outbreak could grind the Games to a halt due to the strictness of the testing. Combine that with tough “close contact” tracing that add additional challenges — more testing, semi-isolation, a lack of access to indoor training facilities — and the potential for a quarantining catastrophe becomes obvious.

As the world prepares to fly into Beijing for the Olympics, the question now is, how many of those thousands of visitors will spend some, or all, of their Olympics confined to a 25-square-meter room?