Director of medical services for VANOC, Dr. Mike Wilkinson, left, and mobile unit manager Dr. Ross Brown speak to reporters in a mobile medical unit set up for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Whistler, B.C., on Wednesday, January 20, 2010. Wilkinson is confident that with the pace of the country’s vaccine rollout, every Canadian athlete will be vaccinated before this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Director of medical services for VANOC, Dr. Mike Wilkinson, left, and mobile unit manager Dr. Ross Brown speak to reporters in a mobile medical unit set up for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Whistler, B.C., on Wednesday, January 20, 2010. Wilkinson is confident that with the pace of the country’s vaccine rollout, every Canadian athlete will be vaccinated before this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canada’s top Olympic doctor expects entire team to be vaccinated before Tokyo

Canada’s stance is its athletes won’t jump the vaccine queue

Canada’s Olympic team doctor is confident that with the pace of the country’s vaccine rollout, every Canadian athlete will be vaccinated before this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Athletes aren’t required to be vaccinated to participate in the Games.

And so, with less than three months before they open on July 23, and with Japan in a state of emergency amid another wave of COVID-19, concern is mounting about how Olympic and Paralympic organizers can ensure the safety of 11,000 athletes from some 200 countries.

Canada’s stance is its athletes won’t jump the vaccine queue.

It likely wouldn’t come to that anyways, according to Dr. Mike Wilkinson, the Canadian Olympic Committee’s chief medical officer.

“Canada has vaccinated approximately just over 30 per cent of our population, and so we’re doing pretty well,” Wilkinson told The Canadian Press.

“It’s moving very quickly, I am confident that the athletes will get vaccinated, as well as the rest of the team (coaches, etc.), before they leave for Tokyo.”

He noted recent announcements in Ontario and Quebec that anyone aged 18 and over is expected to have access to vaccines by the end of May.

The arrival of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week is also good timing, Wilkinson said, and even a single dose of multi-dose vaccines provides excellent coverage and prevention of serious disease.

“We need to understand that vaccines are preventing serious illness and serious disease. It’s not 100 per cent eliminating chances you’re actually getting the virus, but it’s significant protection.

“But that doesn’t mean you can throw all the other prevention measures out, and so that’s why we’ve emphasized the whole time that we’re in control of how we can minimize exposure, which is essentially through the masks, social distancing, the hygiene, the hand washing, the sanitation, et cetera.”

Japan organizers released their latest edition of the “Playbook” this week, outlining safety measures and restrictions at the Games, including daily COVID-19 testing for athletes.

Athletes will stay within a “bubble,” moving only between the athletes village, competition venues and training sites.

Wilkinson said daily testing was good news, and will go a long way in decreasing the chance of asymptomatic carriers causing transmission.

The Canadian team, he said, plans to implement its own protocols for an additional level of safety. Wilkinson said the team is looking at technology to monitor air quality and is partnering with sanitation companies for cleaning and sterilizing of Canada’s area of the athletes village, which includes Canada’s accommodations and its own fitness and medical centres.

Canada will have testing capability for not only COVID-19 but other respiratory and gastrointestinal pathogens. Any athlete or other member of the Canadian team who tests positive for COVID-19 will be treated by Japanese public health authorities.

With athletes living and eating in close quarters at the village — think of a giant cruise ship — there are concerns about viruses ahead of any Olympics.

The 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics saw an outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus. Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic withdrew from the 2016 Rio Olympics due to concerns over the Zika virus. And the 2010 Vancouver Olympics were held amid an outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

The dining hall is a cause for concern, but Wilkinson said organizers have nearly doubled its size, plus reduced capacity to ensure safe distancing. They’re encouraging “grab-and-go” meals, and have added outdoor dining space.

Will these safety measures be enough to prevent the Games from becoming a super-spreader event?

Six-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser sounded the alarm last week, questioning whether it’s safe to hold the Games.

“I have to ask the questions. And I think they’re fair questions,” Wickenheiser told CBC Sports.”(At the beginning of) the pandemic I said there’s no way the Olympics can go ahead because history told us there was no way they could. And now I’m saying I don’t know, I wonder if they can again.”

Many countries, including Canada, are being ravaged by yet another wave and new variants of the pandemic.

Canada has seen first-hand how a COVID-19 outbreak can bring an athlete or team to its knees. The Vancouver Canucks had to pause activity for 11 days after 22 players and four members of the coaching staff tested positive. Two members of the Germany team tested positive at the women’s world curling championships this week in Calgary.

And Olympic bobsled champion Alex Kopacz, who was hospitalized with COVID-19, described in heartbreaking detail how he drew up a will, said goodbyes to his family and friends, and contemplated his death during his darkest days.

Canada’s Olympic swimming trials in Toronto were just postponed for a second time, pushed back to mid-June due to the current lockdown and case numbers in Ontario. Swimming Canada said they still may be moved from Toronto.

FIBA, the world governing body for basketball, said plans to host the Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria, June 29-July 4, haven’t changed.

“FIBA has developed a strong COVID-19 Protocol in conjunction with the WHO and the NBA, and we are working on its implementation in Canada with the local organizing committee and all concerned authorities,” a spokesperson told The Canadian Press. “FIBA is confident that the tournament will take place in Victoria.”

In Japan, meanwhile, polls have consistently shown that the majority of Japanese residents — as many as 80 per cent — think the Olympics shouldn’t be held. Less than two per cent of the Japanese population has been vaccinated.

This week, Australia and South Korea joined the list of countries saying they planned to prioritize Olympic athletes in their vaccine roll-outs.

Canada’s message to athletes, Wilkinson said, is not to fret about vaccine dates.

“Obviously, for athletes not knowing (when and if they’ll be vaccinated) does create significant mental stress and anxiety,” he said.

The medical team’s approach to any Games is hope for the best and prepare for the worst, and certainly Tokyo presents challenges unlike any other Olympics in history.

“We always prepare for worst-case scenarios and you truly hope they won’t happen, but at least you’ve done all the mitigation factors,” Wilkinson said.

“We’ve been advising the athletes and teams that we don’t want to be wasting energy and mental stress on worrying about what other people are doing. We can only control what we do. And what we need to do is minimize our risk.

“It would be great if everybody that went to the Olympics was vaccinated. The reality, given that we’ve got over 200 countries represented coming, is that not everybody is likely to be vaccinated. But even with that, we can minimize infection.”

Wilkinson has been to eight Olympic or Pan American Games as a team physician or CMO, most recently as the team’s CMO at the 2018 Olympics and 2019 Pan Am Games.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Gwen Spencer Hethey is one of four athletes being inducted into the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame this year. Here, she is pictured with her mentor Major Frederick Richardson. (Courtesy of Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame)
Four new names added to Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame

Matt Pettinger, Gwen Spencer Hethey, Peter Lawless and Roger Skillings being inducted

The District of Saanich is accepting nominations for the 2021 Environmental Awards until June 1 at 4 p.m. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
Nominations now open for Saanich’s 21st annual Environmental Awards

Awards recognize individuals and organizations making Saanich more sustainable

Rotary Club of Victoria-Harbourside president Angus Macpherson visited the Wear2Start Society boutique in Victoria to present a cheque to the society’s vice-president Alessandra Ringstad (left) and president Angela Mangiacasale. (Courtesy of Wear2Start)
Rotary club donates over $11,000 to Greater Victoria non-profit for women

Wear2Start Society provides clothing for women in need

Adrienne Rogers (LPN) and Tracy McConnell (RN) on the Victoria Hospice Unit. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Hospice)
Victoria Hospice bereavement counsellors dealing with a tsunami of grief

Last year, Victoria Hospice provided end-of-life care to more than 1,000 people

Paddles sit stacked and ready at a rowing regatta on Elk Lake in 2018. (Black Press Media file photo)
Greater Victoria junior girls rowing team nabs first in national Row to Tokyo challenge

Young Victoria City Rowing Club members row more than 2,250 km

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Most Read