Tokyo Olympics Is a 'Perfect Storm' for COVID-19 Spread, Expert Says

Coco Gauff at the Aorangi Practice Courts during The Championships

Pool / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Tennis player Coco Gauff will not be competing in the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for COVID-19.
  • Experts fear that the Olympics will turn into a superspreader event.
  • Isolation and rigorous contract tracing will be essential to curb the spread of the virus.

U.S. tennis player Coco Gauff announced on Sunday that she would withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for COVID-19.

So far, three athletes in the Olympics Village have tested positive for the coronavirus. Other positive cases include soccer players Thabiso Monyane and Kamohelo Mahlatsi, and one official, The New York Times reported.

While current case numbers are small, experts see a perfect storm for new cases and variants.

Krutika Kuppalli, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, says she worries about rapid transmission of current COVID-19 cases.

“You’ve got a pandemic that is worsening, cases that are surging, a variant that we know is much more highly transmissible in Tokyo, where vaccination coverage is not very high,” Kuppalli tells Verywell. “You've got a perfect storm, so to speak, of things that could happen to increase transmission with the Olympics.”

Kuppalli adds that worse variants may develop if the cases continue to rise. 

The Olympic games will start this Friday, July 23. Around 85% of athletes in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated, according to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. Among other COVID-19 prevention measures, athletes are required to follow a three-day quarantine, limit their travel for two weeks after arrival, and compete without spectators in most sports.

People other than athletes, such as coaches, trainers, event staff, and janitorial workers, are also at high risks of contracting COVID-19, Kuppalli adds. Workers who are unvaccinated are the most vulnerable.

Ensuring sufficient protocols and contact tracing measures are in place will be crucial to quelling the spread of the virus, Kuppalli says. This will include stringent isolation of people who are sick, and making sure all people that the infected athlete came in contact with are notified, even if they are outside of the Olympic Village, she adds. But she is unsure what the current protocols are.

“I feel for the athletes who have spent their whole lives training. This is their dream to compete in the Olympics [and] it was already postponed one year,” Kuppalli says. “I can't imagine being in their situation, but at the same time we are in a global pandemic and we've lost so many lives.”

Alex Pollack, the CEO and founder of Paradocs Worldwide, an organization that provides paramedic staff at large events like festivals, says he feels comfortable monitoring events in areas with high vaccination rates. If he were to be overseas in Tokyo, however, the situation would feel more dangerous to him.

“If we had a festival in New York or LA with super high vaccination rates, I wouldn't necessarily be concerned, because most of the people will be local,” Pollak tells Verywell. “I would be more concerned for people going back home to whatever country they came from, if they had super low vaccination rates.”

Similar to the Olympics, Paradocs Worldwide follows pandemic protocols like masking, temperature checks, and COVID-19 testing. Social distancing measures are used depending on the location and the size of the event.

While the largest concern is curbing the spread of the coronavirus among unvaccinated populations, people in the Olympic village should be cautious not to contract COVID-19 themselves, too, Kuppalli adds.

Kuppalli also warns that Olympics athletes should remain cautious to avoid contracting COVID-19 and being at risk of developing post-viral symptoms, many of which reduce a person’s energy levels and ability to engage in physical activity. An Olympian losing their athletic ability could be devastating, she says.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg of what's going to happen,” Kuppalli says, adding that the Tokyo Olympics has “the potential to be an extremely large super spreader event.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.