Rise in Beijing Olympics COVID Cases Puts Strain on China's Zero-COVID Strategy

COVID-19 infections at the Beijing Olympics are continuing to rise, with 34 new cases detected among athletes and Olympics-related personnel on Saturday, with the total of confirmed positive cases at 139.

China's "zero tolerance" pandemic measures include isolating everyone associated with the Winter Games, which begin on February 4, from the general population.

The country has canceled almost all international flights, and Olympic athletes and others are having to fly directly into Beijing on charter flights. Once there, their movements are limited and they are restricted from having any contact with the public.

They will remain in a bubble known as the "closed loop" that allows them to move between their designated accommodations and Olympic venues on transport controlled by the Beijing Olympics Committee. But they are barred from moving freely in Beijing as part of an effort to stop the spread of infections, as cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant surge around the world.

Soldier guards fence ahead of Olympics
A Peoples Liberation Army soldier guards a perimeter fence of the closed loop system at the National Speed Skating Oval ahead of the Winter Olympics on January 30, 2022 in Beijing, China. David Ramos/Getty Images

China has fully vaccinated nearly 90 percent of its population, but it remains one of the only countries still pursuing a zero-COVID policy. The no-tolerance approach is expected to last throughout the year as it hosts the Winter Olympics in Beijing and a number of other sporting events in the spring and summer.

As the start of the Games gets closer, the number of arrivals and people in the closed loop bubble testing positive for COVID-19 has continued to grow.

Twenty-three of 857 Olympic-related arrivals tested positive after arriving at the airport on Saturday, the Beijing 2022 Winter Games organizing committee announced on Sunday. Of those, 13 were athletes or team officials while 10 were other Games stakeholders.

The other 11 infections officials confirmed on Saturday were people who were already in the closed loop bubble. Three of those cases were athletes and team officials, while the others were Games stakeholders.

Australian officials announced on Sunday that a member of the country's team had tested positive after arriving at the airport on Saturday night.

Geoff Lipshut, the Australian team chief, did not disclose who the person was, but said they did not have close contact with other team members.

"There is no angst or stress about this unexpected situation and everyone is prepared," Lipshut said, according to Reuters.

The Polish Olympic Committee said on Saturday that Poland's short track skating medal hopeful Natalia Maliszewska had tested positive for COVID-19 and was in isolation. She is the eighth Polish athlete to have tested positive after arriving in Beijing.

The newly reported infections bring the total confirmed cases linked to the Olympics to 139, according to the Beijing organizing committee.

Organizers say there have been 102 positive tests among the 5,417 people who have arrived in Beijing for the Games since January 23, while 37 were infections confirmed through testing within the closed loop bubble. All Games stakeholders, including members of the media and staff, are tested daily.