The International Olympic Committee on Wednesday reassured an anxious Japan that the Tokyo Olympics will be safe for athletes as well as the host community amid mounting opposition to the games and fears it will fuel a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Speaking at the outset of a three-day virtual meeting between Japan and the IOC’s Coordination Commission, IOC chief Thomas Bach said more than 80% of the Olympic Village’s residents would be vaccinated or booked for vaccination ahead of the games due to start on July 23.
He rejected mounting calls for the global sporting showpiece — already delayed once due to the pandemic — to be canceled, saying other sporting events had proven that the Olympics could go ahead with strong COVID-safe precautions.
Bach’s comments came as Japan continued to struggle with a fourth wave of infections and a slow vaccine rollout which has undermined the public’s already shaky confidence that the games should go ahead.
“Together with our Japanese partners and friends, I can only re-emphasize this full commitment of the IOC to organize together safe Olympic and Paralympic games for everybody.
“To accomplish this, we are now fully focused on the delivery of the Olympic Games,” he said.
Less than 30% of medics in Japan’s major cities had been vaccinated against COVID-19 with just 65 days to go before the start of Olympics, Nikkei reported on Wednesday.
Cabinet figures released this week showed that three months into Japan’s COVID-19 vaccination push, less than 40% of its medical workers were fully inoculated.
The problem is especially pronounced in Tokyo and other large population centers, where the rate of fully vaccinated medical workers was less than 30%, Nikkei said.
Much of the supply of vaccine was concentrated in large hospitals, and there had been problems in the reservation systems for medical staff, the newspaper added.
The slow rollout for doctors and nurses has been among complaints cited by medical groups that have come out against holding the games.
Bach pledged to ease the burden on local medical systems during the Olympics, with national olympic committees to be asked to bring their own medical staff where possible and the IOC contributing its own to organizers.
“The IOC has offered to the organizing committee to have additional medical personnel… to support the medical operations and the strict implementation of COVID-19 countermeasures,” said Bach.
“The most important principle is very clear. The Olympic village is a safe place, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be organized in a safe way,” Bach said. “We must concentrate on delivery of these safe and secure Olympic Games because the opening ceremony is only 65 days away.”
The offer to send medical officials to the Tokyo Games came amid growing public concern in Japan that hosting the global sporting event this summer could put further strains on the country’s medical system.
The remote meeting through Friday is the 11th and final meeting between Japan and the IOC commission, which oversees preparation for the games, before the Olympics begin on July 23.
The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are expected to feature about 15,000 athletes from around the world. Athletes will be screened for the virus on a daily basis in principle and are required to minimize physical interaction with others during the games to prevent the spread of the virus.
The IOC and other organizers have already decided not to stage the games with spectators from overseas, and they are scheduled to decide next month on the number of fans from Japan admitted at venues.
The organizers will also release next month the third version of the “playbooks,” or COVID-19 guidelines during the games.
States of emergency
Much of Japan, including the metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, is under a state of emergency until the end of the month to try to counter COVID-19 infections. The southern prefecture of Okinawa said on Wednesday it would request its own emergency declaration as new infections reached record highs.
The government is aiming to inoculate most of its 36 million people over the age of 65 by the end of July. To reach that target, the government hopes to deliver about 1 million shots a day, about three times faster than the current pace.
So far, just 3.7% of Japan’s population of 126 million have gotten at least one vaccine shot, the lowest rate among wealthy countries. Initially, the holdup was scant supplies of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, the only one approved by regulators so far.
But inbound shipments of the Pfizer shot have increased dramatically in May, and the government is expected to approve Moderna’s candidate this week for use in mass vaccination centers. The shot developed by AstraZeneca is also being considered by domestic regulators.
As supply bottlenecks eased, problems with vaccine reservation systems and manpower shortages have cropped up. The government said on Wednesday it is looking into allowing pharmacists to give the injections, after it made a similar ruling on dentists last month.
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