The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are the second games to happen during a global pandemic. But rules for athletes and other attendees are strict. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post, Photo: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)
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U.S. Olympic bobsled team member Josh Williamson announced Wednesday on Instagram that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, preventing him from traveling to Beijing for the Winter Games on Thursday with the rest of Team USA.

“This has not been an easy pill to swallow,” he wrote. “I have felt pretty helpless throughout this process, but I’ve also found myself laughing a bit at the situation I’m in. Isn’t it ironic that after 4 years of hard work, all there is to do is sit, rest, recover and have faith? Things I struggle to do the most.”

The Olympics do not begin until Feb. 4 and the four-man bobsled competition — in which Williamson, a brakeman, is expected to compete — does not start until Feb. 15, giving him time to test negative and join his teammates in Beijing. But his positive test shows how the pandemic could end Olympic hopes for some athletes before the Games even begin, perhaps unfairly.

Last week, Team USA Chief Medical Official Jonathan Finnoff told the Associated Press that every American athlete going to Beijing is fully vaccinated. Nonetheless, Williamson’s positive test still complicates his path to Beijing. Under Olympic coronavirus protocols, he now must test negative four times before departing for the Games: twice within 96 hours of his departure for Beijing, with the tests coming at least 24 hours apart and one of them within 72 hours of departure, and twice in tests taken at least 24 hours apart after his recovery (Williamson did not say whether he was experiencing covid-19 symptoms).

American Olympians took selfies as they walked the red carpet before boarding their charter plane to Beijing on Jan. 27. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

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The four-test rule applies only to athletes such as Williamson who have tested positive for the coronavirus and are less than 30 days removed from recovery. Athletes who haven’t tested positive or who have tested positive but are more than 30 days removed from recovery have to test negative just twice before traveling for Beijing — once within 96 hours of departing and another time within 72 hours.

Beijing Olympic officials require all athletes to be tested using PCR tests, which can detect the lingering virus days or even weeks after infection, after a person is no longer contagious. The use of PCR tests at this stage of the pandemic has come into question, however, with medical experts warning that they take too long to process and that they “could be misleading and overly restrictive because a person could be clear of the virus weeks before taking the test,” as Ezekiel Emanuel, David Michaels, Rick Bright and Luciana Borio wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

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In other words, Williamson and other Olympic athletes who test positive could be prevented from traveling to Beijing even if they are no longer infectious. Bill Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told Yahoo that PCR testing was “going to disqualify some people for no good reason.”

Once the athletes arrive in China, they will be required to take another PCR test and then wait in their accommodation until the results come in (Olympic officials promise the wait will be six hours or less). They then will be tested daily for the coronavirus, and anyone who tests positive will then be tested again for confirmatory purposes. People who test positive on both will not be allowed to participate further in the Olympics and will have to isolate at a hospital (if symptomatic) or at a location designated by Olympic officials (if asymptomatic). They will not be allowed to go outside during their isolation.

If asymptomatic, athletes who test positive will be discharged from isolation if they test negative on two PCR tests taken at least 24 hours apart. The same applies to symptomatic individuals, though they also have to be clear of their symptoms before discharge.

Athletes deemed a close contact of someone who has tested positive may still train and compete but otherwise will have to quarantine in a single room, dine alone and wear a face covering at all times (except when training, competing, eating or drinking, or when alone). Close contacts also will be tested every 12 hours for seven days and six hours before any competition.

Williamson still has time to test negative and get to Beijing (he noted in his Instagram post that Team USA has scheduled later flights to Beijing “in anticipation of things like this”). But there’s still a chance that he’ll keep testing positive, dashing his Olympic hopes before he could even make one run down the course.

“The support I received after making the team has been incredible and it has meant the world to me,” he wrote. “I hope I get the chance to compete for you all!”

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