By Rory Carroll
(Reuters) - U.S. Olympic athletes are on track to be vaccinated for the novel coronavirus sooner than expected and well ahead of this summer's Tokyo Games, leaders of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) said on Wednesday.
"We are more optimistic than ever in hoping Team USA athletes will be readily and easily vaccinated well before the Games and, for some, likely even before their trials," USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland told reporters on a call following a board meeting.
"It's great news and we're feeling quite positive about the progress we're seeing in the United States around vaccines."
As of Tuesday morning, nearly 128 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been distributed in the United States and nearly 96 million shots administered, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Athletes may be able to get vaccinated in their local communities as early as May, which would provide the easiest logistical pathway for inoculation, Hirshland said.
The USOPC will not require athletes to be vaccinated in order to compete at the Olympics, but is confident most will choose to do so.
"I absolutely expect there will be Team USA athletes who do not choose to take a vaccine and we will respect that right," Hirshland said.
"That said, we expect the vast majority of athletes to elect to take the vaccine."
The Tokyo Games, which were pushed back by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, are scheduled to begin on July 23.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; editing by Richard Pullin)