The Olympic ‘bubble’ in Beijing will be the most ambitious quarantine Covid has ever attempted. Will it work?
The Winter Olympics are just two weeks away, and outside the Olympic venues in Beijing, banners and decorations have been put up. But there are also metal fences and long guard posts, dividing China’s capital and barring anyone from Covid’s official safe passage.
Having been largely blocked off from the world for two years, Beijing is preparing for the arrival of thousands of foreign Olympic athletes, officials, journalists and support staff – including from other countries. countries where the highly transmissible variant of Omicron is rampant.
Whether the Chinese authorities can keep the Covid Games safe and prevent any outbreaks from spilling over into Beijing is the ultimate test of China’s zero-Covid strategy. Strict prevention and control measures put in place by the ruling Communist Party as proof of the self-proclaimed superiority of its authoritarian political system. This strategy has kept infections and deaths low – but it has also caused painful lockdowns for millions and isolated China from the world.
And now, Beijing is taking similar measures to the Olympics. To limit the spread of the infection, it is sealing the entire Game inside what authorities call a “closed-loop system” – a bubble completely cut off from the rest of the city. .
The quarantine is said to be the most ambitious of its kind ever implemented. The NBA tried something similar, creating a quarantine zone inside Disney World in Orlando, Florida, designed to keep players and staff safe during the final stages of the 2019-20 season. But what Beijing is about to try is on a whole different level.
While the NBA “bubble” has about 350 players from 22 teams, the Beijing bubble is welcoming about 11,000 people from around the world – and they will move across three game zones up to 111 miles apart ( 180 km).
Protecting the bubble would require massive manpower, meticulous planning, widespread oversight, and rigorous government enforcement — and the arrival of Omicron only made it more difficult.
Currently, the coronavirus has been detected during the recent Olympic Games in Beijing, both at the airport and inside the closed loop.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said in a statement on Wednesday that so far, 1.53% of tests performed on arrival have been positive, while 0.02% of routine screening tests performed in closed loop is positive. It does not specify the total number of trials in both situations.
“All cases to date have been within 5 days of arrival and are therefore assessed as imported (contracted prior to arrival in Beijing). No transmission has occurred during the period.” Closed loop,” the statement said.
As of Friday, more than 2,000 participants had arrived in Beijing, including athletes, officials, members of the IOC and the media, according to the official app of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Thousands of Chinese volunteers and employees have spent days, if not weeks, inside closed loops.
Here is a breakdown of how the bubble is supposed to work.
Participants will be confined to a “closed loop” from touchdown to flying out. During their stay, they will compete, work, eat and sleep without coming into contact with the broader Chinese community.
The “closed loop” includes a series of stadiums, a convention center and more than 70 hotels, with hotels in downtown Beijing fenced off and heavily guarded by police; it even has its own transportation system, with 4,000 dedicated vehicles to move participants from one place to another.
Instead of a giant Olympic bubble, the system is formed by a network of small interconnected bubbles. They gather in three zones: downtown Beijing, where the ice competitions will be held and the opening and closing ceremonies; suburban Yanqing district, an alpine skiing and snowboarding site; and Zhangjiakou, a city in neighboring Hebei province will host Nordic skiing and the majority of freestyle skiing and snowboarding events.
The three zones are linked by high-speed trains and highways. To maintain segregation, even train carriages are divided and closed loop buses are assigned specially marked lanes. Non-Olympic drivers crossing these lanes will be fined.
In a sign that Chinese authorities will avoid bursting bubbles for a long time, residents have been warned not to rush to ask for help if an Olympic car crashes.
“In the event of a traffic accident with special vehicles for the Winter Olympics, please pay attention to maintain a safe distance,” Beijing’s traffic authorities said in a statement. social media earlier this month. “Do not contact vehicles or personnel in them and wait for experts to arrive on the scene.”
Closed-loop athletes, staff and volunteers will also be segregated from spectators, who will have their own transportation and entrance to events. Beijing organizers announced this week that tickets for the Olympics will not be sold to the public in response to the pandemic, but will instead be distributed by authorities.
Jump in the bubble
Given China’s determination to contain any Covid cases, getting to the bubble has been a challenge.
Anyone entering the bubble must be fully vaccinated, or face an additional 21-day quarantine upon arrival in Beijing before being allowed into the bubble.
Itinerary starts 14 days before departure date. Participants were asked to limit interactions with others to avoid catching Covid. They also had to use an app to upload their body temperature and answer questions about their health every day.
Cybersecurity researchers have warned that the app contains security flaws that could expose users to data breaches. Chinese authorities have dismissed the concerns, but the United States and other countries are advising athletes to bring disposable record phones to the Olympics.
Before departure, those going to the Games must take two Covid tests. With very few international flights allowed to land in Beijing, most participants had to take special charter flights. Upon arrival, they will be greeted by workers in hazmat suits and undergo another test, before being transported to their hotel on buses designated by police escorts.
What’s it like inside?
Once inside the bubble, the participants will have to follow a series of strict prevention and control measures. They will be tested for Covid every day and must wear a mask at all times.
The stakes to catch Covid are very high. Participants who test positive will be immediately disqualified from the Game. Those with symptoms will be taken to a designated hospital for treatment, while those without symptoms will be taken to an isolation facility. They will not be allowed to return to the bubble until all symptoms disappear and they test negative twice in a row – meaning they will almost certainly miss their event.
The PCR tests for the Beijing Winter Olympics are also more stringent than those used by other sporting events, such as the NBA and NHL, meaning they could come back positive. with lower viral loads.
A positive test can also affect the person’s teammates and colleagues. Anyone who comes into contact with an infected person without a mask for longer than 15 minutes is considered close contact and will have to be tested twice daily.
Chinese authorities did not disclose exactly how many workers will be inside the “closed-loop system”. Already in the bubble were thousands of Chinese volunteers and staff, including organizers, healthcare workers, drivers, cleaners and chefs. The first batch of volunteers – 16 students from a university in Beijing – entered the “closed loop” on January 3 to work at Beijing Capital International Airport, before the first Olympic flight. arrive.
The Chinese staff and volunteers were asked to stay for the duration of the event – meaning they would miss out on the Lunar New Year holiday. It is the biggest festival in China and the most important time for families to get together – likened by some to Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year combined. To get out of the bubble, they must also undergo a strict 21-day quarantine at a designated facility.
Chinese organizers advertised innovative technologies applied inside the bubble to keep Covid safe.
At the ice hockey stadium, staff will wear an armpit thermometer all day, which will sound an alarm if someone’s temperature exceeds 37.3 degrees. Inside a “smart canteen” at the main media center, robots prepare Chinese and Western dishes and cocktails behind glass screens, while meals are brought from the ceiling by robotic arms automatic.
Will it work?
The IOC has suggested that the early detection of Covid-19 cases among arrivals is an indication that the “closed-loop system” is working.
“All data to date provide confidence that daily PCR testing combined with tight isolation and contact policies in place means that the Closed Loop is very safe and participants-free. any contamination in it,” it said in the statement.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was not surprising – and even inevitable – to see cases inside the Olympic bubble.
“Given the high transmission capacity of the new variant, I’m sure there will be some infection at the Olympics,” Huang said. “The question is whether those outbreaks will evolve into bursts within the bubble – or even worse, spill outside the bubble and cause outbreaks in the city and beyond.”
Huang added that he was “cautiously optimistic” that China’s zero-Covid strategy could succeed, citing “unprecedented stringent measures”.
Earlier this month, the Omicron variant was detected in a community in Beijing, prompting authorities to quickly lock down an office building and a residential area. Several Delta cases have also been reported.
Authorities warned of the “double pressure of domestic and imported cases,” but still struck a confident tone.
“The general situation remains under control,” Huang Chun, an official with the Beijing Organizing Committee, said at a news conference last week. He added that there are no plans to blockade the city or change coronavirus containment rules for the Winter Olympics.