On a recent morning, the gagging sound of titleholders undergoing their daily coronavirus throat swab from a woman in a hazmat suit echoed off the marble floors of a hotel inside the bubble of Winter Olympics.
Nearby, two workers wearing face shields, protective aprons and slippers wiped down the temperature sensor that anyone entering the hotel must pass through after stations to decontaminate their luggage and hands.
A robot spraying disinfectant in the air patrolled the breakfast buffet, where each customer encountered another temperature sensor before being given disposable gloves and enjoying their morning coffee at tables where wooden dividers transparent plastic separated each space.
Strict, sometimes confusing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus permeated every aspect of daily life at the Games, echoing China’s zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic.
But the precautions – focused on the bubble being cut off from the rest of society – appear to have worked.
Organizers reported no new positive tests on Saturday for the second time in three days, leaving the total number of Games-related coronavirus cases at 437 since January 23.
“It was one of the safest places on the planet, if not the safest place on the planet,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach boasted during his closing press conference. .
The bubble used during the Tokyo Olympics last summer, where 464 people tested positive, was not as aggressive. Credential holders served a flexible two-week quarantine limiting them to approved destinations such as convenience stores and venues and then were free to travel. Everyone has apps installed on their phones to trace contacts and monitor health on a daily basis. Athletes were tested daily while others were tested every three days by spitting into a small vial as a relatively relaxed attitude prevailed.
The Beijing Olympics were very different, with a system organizers described as a “closed loop” based on two rulebooks, starting with dozens of workers in hazmat suits who greeted each plane loaded with arrivals at Beijing Capital International Airport.
“The success of the countermeasures means the success of the Games,” said Huang Chun, deputy general manager of pandemic prevention and control for the organizers, who noted that the regulations were “very strictly adhered to”.
Every step was separated from the rest of China. Accreditation holders were required to take Special Olympics-only flights in and out of the country using dedicated terminals. Police, surveillance cameras and temporary walls surrounded their hotels. Even food delivery services weren’t allowed out of the bubble.
Everyone inside had to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus – or serve a 21-day quarantine – and could only travel on approved transport between a small list of destinations. Each person had to enter daily health information into an app that has raised questions about its safety. Experts question the usefulness of the app because of how easily it can be traced back to temperature and denying any symptoms. High-quality masks were mandatory, as were daily tests using throat swabs instead of saliva. Anyone who tested positive, after a second confirmatory test, was taken to an isolation center.
Coverage of the Beijing Olympics
“I’m pleasantly surprised by the low number of cases – not because I wouldn’t expect the controls to work – they do – but because even in closed loops or a ‘bubble’ a person not following protocols to a T can result in the loop/bubble being broken,” said Marissa Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who has worked on ways to protect workers from the coronavirus and has tracked outbreaks on work place. “It seems to be a testament not only to the fact that the controls are strong, but also that everyone is conscientious in following them in order to protect each other.”
Baker said checking temperatures through the automatic systems that litter hotels and bubble venues is not effective because people can be contagious before symptoms appear.
The exact number of people inside the bubble is not known, although organizers carried out 70,000 daily tests at the height of the Games. The bubble encompassed a wide range of degree holders, including athletes, team officials, journalists, hotel staff, security, bus drivers, volunteers and many more.
More than 1.7 million total tests on residents of the bubble revealed 171 cases, including 68 athletes or team officials since January 23, with the rest of the cases coming from airport tests on the 13,600 arrivals Games-related. The number is not broken down by country or sport.
Although a handful of medal contenders were unable to travel to China due to testing positive ahead of the Games, the virus has not led to widespread disruptions to competitions or outbreaks in athletes’ villages spread across three groups of sites.
Zachary Binney, assistant professor and epidemiologist at Emory University, noted that the most effective ways to stop the spread of the coronavirus are vaccines, quickly isolating cases and keeping the virus out of the air.
“The closed loop certainly doesn’t hurt because it limits the possibilities of introducing the virus, but it’s not feasible in the vast majority of cases, and frankly the size of the loop and the fact that cases have entered in the first place makes me question its usefulness,” Binney continued.
The organizers seemed to be using a kitchen sink approach. Every other seat has been blocked on buses to promote social distancing, although in practice this has been ignored. Athletes crossing mixed zones were separated from reporters by several feet, requiring shouted questions and selfie sticks to hoist the recorders towards them. Volunteers held signs reading “Mask On”. Signs on the floors begged for social distancing. Hand sanitizer dispensers seemed to be everywhere. The few carefully selected spectators allowed into the halls – separate from those in the closed loop – were encouraged to wave flags and cheer instead of applauding. Plastic barriers blocked cashiers from their customers, separated press center offices from venues and were present in every dining room.
Generally speaking, Binney described the barriers as “almost entirely worthless” and “pure theater”.
Hazmat suits were also commonplace. The personnel guiding the planes to the gate of the airport carried them. The people who helped with the luggage carried them. So did some bartenders and employees who cleaned hotel rooms or dropped off clean towels. Workers wearing the suits tested an escalator handrail for coronavirus at the main press center one day.
Sanitizer has appeared as often during the Winter Olympics as mascot Bing Dwen Dwen. Workers hosed down parking lots after buses were loaded or unloaded. They pulverized one person’s leftover breakfast before serving the table. They dunked the door preventing people from leaving a bubble hotel. Workers roamed empty hotel hallways spraying bulb-shaped bottles of sanitizer into the air, relentlessly even as the Games ended.
The acrid smell lingered long after they left.