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COVID-19 jeopardizes medal hopes for some Olympic athletes in Beijing

A worker prepares to administer a COVID-19 test at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Wednesday. So far, 111 athletes and officials have tested positive for the virus at the Olympics, including from people arriving at the airport.
Natacha Pisarenko
A worker prepares to administer a COVID-19 test at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Wednesday. So far, 111 athletes and officials have tested positive for the virus at the Olympics, including from people arriving at the airport.

Decorated bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor was supposed to lead the way for Team USA as flag bearer at the Beijing Winter Games opening ceremony on Friday. Instead, she hunkered down in isolationcheering on her teammates as she waited for the infection to pass.

Although she's asymptomatic, one more negative test stands in between the three-time medalist and a shot at becoming the most decorated woman bobsledder in Olympics history. (Winter Games participants must produce two consecutive negative PCR tests within a 24-hour span before they can leave isolation.)

Meyers Taylor is amongthree U.S. bobsledders to have tested positive for the virus within days of the Games' start.

The bobsledders have a little over a week until their competitions begin on Feb. 13.

Like Meyers Taylor, all infected athletes are sequestered in isolation hotels and risk missing pre-competition practices as well as the events themselves.

COVID-19 has already dashed medal dreams for several Olympians. Positive tests have taken athletes from the Ukraine, Germany and Norway out of figure skating and skiing events.

In total, there have been 308 positive COVID-19 tests confirmed at the Olympics since Jan. 23, including from people arriving at the airport. Athletes and officials made up 111 of that total, while the group of other participants made up the remaining 197.

Upon arrival in Beijing, Olympic participants enter what authorities are calling a "closed loop," where they live, work, train and compete in communities cut off from the Chinese public. Daily testing is a requirement in the strict list of COVID-19 protocols at the Games.

China is also inviting a limited selection of spectators to watch the games, including diplomats, schoolchildren and "winter sport enthusiasts." Further muting the fandom, in order to curb viral spread, attendees are encouraged to clap instead of cheering or singing.

And Olympic athletes and team officials who are already inside of Beijing's "closed loop" sites are testing positive for COVID-19 at much higher rates than other people inside the Winter Games sites.

The positive test rate on Thursday for athletes and officials inside the Olympic bubble was far higher for athletes and officials compared with positive rates of workers and others, according to the latest data from local organizers. Two of 6,572 tests from the athletes-officials group turned up positive on Thursday; only five of more than 64,000 daily tests from other Games participants — staff, media and other "stakeholders" — were positive. Since Jan. 23, the positive screening test rate for athletes and team officials is about 10 times higher than that of the other stakeholders in the bubble.

Still, Olympic health officials have said they aren't concerned about the likelihood of an uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus into China.

Both pre-departure and post-arrival airport testing identifies those who are positive, Dr. Brian McCloskey, the chief of the Beijing 2022 medical expert panel, said during a press conference this week. That minimizes the pool of potentially infected people who enter the Olympic bubble in Beijing.

"After four or five days in the closed loop, the risk comes down to equivalent to [that of] the local population, which is very low," McCloskey said. "At that stage, they're working within the closed loop effectively."

In speech at the opening ceremony, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, thanked the many health professionals and the Chinese public for making the 2022 Games a reality.

"In the same spirit, our heart goes out to all the athletes who because of the pandemic could not make their Olympic dream come true," Bach said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.