1 sep, 2021

An unforgettable journey

Earlier this summer, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan, as the team physician for U.S. Rowing. We spent a week training in Hawaii prior to the games, then made our way to Tokyo for two of the three weeks of competition. It was an awesome experience, one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Of course, the games – and my trip – were delayed by a full year because of the pandemic. And as you know, there was much trepidation and debate about whether the games should go on because of low vaccination rates in Japan and rising cases around the world. Those low rates raised the anxiety level there for hosting…many citizens didn’t want them to go on as planned, but we rarely saw protesters. On that note, it was also fascinating how the Japanese citizens adhered to the public health measures. Things like masking and social distancing were strictly followed. Adherence to rules was also visible in the everyday things I saw people doing, such as style of dress, driving, walking, and crossing the street.

For weeks, even months leading up our trip, I regularly checked the status of cases and vaccination rates in Japan. One of the first things we learned once we got to Tokyo, and updates from Olympic Committee staff confirmed it, was that they had relatively few cases/incidents despite the very low vaccination rate. The country had done a very effective job screening travelers, especially leading up to the games…being an island nation, it may be a bit easier to manage this.

I was curious as to why Japan had a relatively low vaccination rate for a developed country. Based on information shared by the USOPC and local clinicians, there were three explanations. First, the country had a relatively low supply of vaccine to administer. Second, unlike in the U.S. where clinicians of many licensures can give immunizations, in Japan, only physicians could administer vaccines. Lastly, although Japan has an advanced health system, cultural health beliefs focus on non-Western medicine.

We observed a “clash of cultures" in the Olympic Village especially – not all countries’ contingents were as willing or eager to play by the rules. We saw many examples of non-compliance with mask wearing, social distancing, and protocols like having separate entrances and exits at facilities. There were some positive cases but overall, the numbers among games participants were low. From 1 de julio through the end of the games, there were only 430 total positive cases – including just 29 athletes – with more than 600,000 total tests administered. On the rowing team, we conducted a total of more than 1,000 tests over 19 days and did not have a single positive test.

It was an incredible journey, and it was eye-opening to see the stark differences in how this global health crisis is both viewed and handled by people in different parts of the world. I think we can all take some pointers on how to approach things going forward. As always, thank you for all you do to keep our members and all Rhode Islanders safe and healthy. Also, just a reminder that September is Pain Awareness Month as well as Childhood Cancer Month. So please take a moment to recognize and thank those who work in these areas for all they do!

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