COVID-19 vaccinations are encouraged for athletes competing in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics but still won’t be made mandatory even as parts of Japan are about to declare a state of emergency due to a surge in coronavirus cases.

“Our position there is very clear. You cannot make this now compulsory anymore, two months before the Games,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told reporters from around the world during a virtual news conference held after a meeting of the IOC Executive Board Wednesday.

Bach said Olympic officials are “encouraging and assisting and helping” to get the 11,000 athletes expected to compete in Tokyo vaccinated in time for the July 23 start of what’s still being called the 2020 Summer Games after being postponed a year because of the pandemic.

“We are seeing very good progress there. A great number of national Olympic committees have announced their athletes will be vaccinated, including the United States with their big team,” the IOC leader said, adding he is confident “a big number” of the participants will have gotten the shots.

Earlier this month, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland spelled out that Team USA athletes and other members of the delegation headed to Tokyo are not required to be vaccinated but are being encouraged to get the shots.

However, Hirshland said the committee is not keeping track of who chooses to be vaccinated.

“We are helping to support Team USA athletes to ensure they know where to find access to the vaccine, if it’s something they want to take,” she said at a summit for media covering the Tokyo Olympics. “We know many of our athletes and many of our staff have already been vaccinated, because they have chosen to offer that information.”

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Bach said athlete vaccinations combined with limiting their stays in the Olympic Village to allow for social distancing, regular testing and other measures taken to protect against the spread of the virus — including barring foreign and now possibly Japanese spectators — should help ensure a safe Games.

“We have seen that this works,” he said, citing some 340 international competitions involving more than 40,000 athletes “and none of these events have been a virus spreader. And they did not even have the benefit of the vaccine. In Tokyo, we will.”

He said he anticipates the state of emergency set to be declared in Tokyo and other parts of Japan will only be in place for that country’s annual “Golden Week” holiday period, from April 29 to May 9. Japan is experiencing a surge in cases combined with a slow vaccine rollout.

For anyone questioning whether the Tokyo Olympics should go forward, Bach said they need to remember “Olympians never give up. This is a message which I think has an appeal to everybody. We all, whether in sport or in our lives, have situations where you have doubts and where you are down.”

That’s the time to look up to Olympic athletes, he said, citing Ikee Rikako, a Japanese swimmer who competed in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro but was diagnosed with leukemia two years later. Now training for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris, she spoke of not taking life for granted last year when Japan delayed the Games.

“To say, ‘I never give up and from there I look forward with confidence and hope,’” is Rikako’s powerful message, Bach said. He said Japanese athletes have won competitions around the world, including golfer Hideki Matsuyama, the winner of this year’s Masters golf tournament, and should be able to compete at home in the Olympics.

When Utah hosted the 2002 Winter Games, organizers had planned for hundreds of things that could go wrong but not for a pandemic, said Fraser Bullock, the chief operating officer of the Salt Lake City Games and a leader of the effort to bring the Olympics back to Utah, likely in 2030 or 2034.

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“Contingency planning is a massive part of any Olympic Games preparation. But this one is something on a whole new level that none of us would have foreseen, so it opens our eyes,” Bullock said. He said he believes Tokyo organizers are putting athletes first, just as the Salt Lake Organizing Committee did in 2002.

“Everything is done by every organizing committee to make sure athletes are able to safely compete and under the best of circumstances so the field of play is excellent,” he said. “Everything that I’m aware of that Tokyo is doing in partnership with the IOC, is that they’re taking extraordinary measure to ensure the athletes are safe.”

South African COVID-19 variant identified in Utah

In Salt Lake City Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 590 new COVID-19 cases and three additional deaths from the virus, along with the first case of what’s known as the South African variant of the virus because of where it originated.

Utah has also identified 482 cases of the U.K. variant that shut down Britain and other places overseas, seven cases of another variant from Brazil, and 537 cases of two variants from California, state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said.

A total of 1,950,894 vaccine doses have been administered in the state, a daily increase of 34,472. 

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 384 per day, and an additional 4,057 Utahns have taken tests for the coronavirus since Tuesday, with another 15,496 tests conducted. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 3% when all results are included, and 6.2% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded. 

Currently, there are 146 people hospitalized with the virus in Utah, bringing the total hospitalizations in the state since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago to 15.981.

Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 has reached 2,177 lives lost with the three deaths reported Wednesday. They are:

• An Iron County woman, between 65-84, hospitalized.

• A Davis County man, between 65-84, hospitalized.

• A Utah County woman, between 25-44, hospitalized.