With the 2022 Winter Olympics just days away and the world still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olympic athletes might miss out on competing if they develop the disease.
It’s already become a problem for the U.S. team, after U.S. bobsledder, Josh Williamson, tested positive for COVID-19 just 4 days before his scheduled departure for Beijing. The bobsled competitions are scheduled for the final week of the Olympics, leaving hope for Williamson that he will be able to compete.
But to do so, he will have to follow strict protocols put forth from the International Olympic Committee. And what about other athletes with more imminent competitions who may test positive?
“As I understand it, the Olympic Committee has a thick rule book that covers just about all circumstances,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine, department of health policy, and professor of medicine, division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. “The athletes and their coaches have little choice.”
The rule book has policies laid out for every scenario, and should a competitor test positive, it may be very tricky for them to go through with a competition.
What are the COVID-19 testing protocols for the 2022 Winter Olympics?
The chief medical officer of the U.S. Olympic team told The Associated Press that all of the 200-plus athletes heading to Beijing are fully vaccinated. Still, breakthrough infections are possible.
The International Olympic Committee has a clear plan for layers of testing, to detect potential infections at every stage.
“While participants need to have at least two negative pre-departure tests within 96 and 72 hours prior to their departure, they will immediately be tested upon arrival. Games participants are asked to take a PCR test at the airport. Trained customs staff will take an oropharyngeal (throat) and a nasopharyngeal (nose) swab sample, which will be combined for analysis.”
In addition, Olympic participants will be PCR-tested daily for COVID-19, which will minimize the chance of undetected positive cases.
What if an athlete tests positive?
If an athlete tests positive for COVID-19 and is asymptomatic, he or she will be discharged from isolation once they have two consecutive PCR test results that are taken 24 hours apart.
Dr. Brian Mcloskey, chair of the Beijing 2022 Medical Expert Panel, said in a press conference, “We have always said the target is not zero cases; the target is zero spread… The challenge is to make sure we pick those up very quickly and that they do not cause a spreading event.”
For athletes, like Williamson, who test positive and are less than 30 days from recovery, they must submit to a “four test” rule. That rule states that athletes must test negative four times before departing — twice within 96 hours, with the tests coming at least 24 hours apart and one of them within 72 hours of departure, and twice in tests that are taken at least 24 hours apart after recovery.
Athletes who have tested positive but are more than 30 days removed from recovery have to test negative two times before traveling to Beijing. These tests must come within 96 hours of departing, and another within 72 hours.
The Olympic Committee considers the PCR test to be the gold standard of detection, even though the PCR test can still detect the virus weeks after infection, which can pose a problem for athletes who may still be testing positive and are no longer symptomatic.
All athletes will have to take a PCR test on arrival and isolate in their accommodation until the results come in. Anyone who tests positive on this test, or the daily tests, will be tested a second time to confirm. If both of these tests are positive, that athlete will not be permitted to participate and will have to isolate.
If an athlete tests positive but is asymptomatic, they will be allowed to leave isolation if they test negative on two PCR tests that are taken 24 hours apart. This is the same policy for athletes who are symptomatic, though for them to be discharged, they must show no symptoms.
What happens if an athlete comes in close contact with someone who tests positive?
The Beijing Playbook defines “close contact” as a person who has prolonged contact (for 15 minutes or more) with a person who has a confirmed positive COVID-19 test, within 1 meter, without wearing a KN95, N95, or equivalent form of PPE.
Should that happen, the athlete in close contact may still train and compete, but apart from training and competition will have to quarantine in a single room, as well as eat alone. The athlete must also wear a face-covering at all times, except when training, competing, dining, or when alone. These athletes will be tested every 12 hours for 7 days, as well as 6 hours before any competition.
Written by Meagan Drillinger, contributing writer for Healthline. Fact checked by Maria Gifford