A wake-up call from Covid-19

It was probably inevitable that we would eventually see positive Covid-19 virus infections in an IOF event “bubble”. However, the virus which has caused the global pandemic has sent a real wake-up call from the Nokian Tyres World Orienteering Championships.

On the second to last day of competition, when the WOC relays were about to start, the organisers confirmed through PCR testing a symptomatic Covid-19 infection from one of the Team Officials within the event bubble. The organisers Covid doctor and local authorities determined that the teams other Team Officials needed to be isolated, but that following negative testing, the involved teams could start in the relay. On the final day of competition an athlete from another team, showing no symptoms, tested positive following a screening test for being able to travel home to their home country. The athlete was quarantined for 14 days in the Czech Republic.

2 weeks has passed now since the conclusion of the event and unfortunately an additional 13 cases of confirmed positive Covid-19 infections have been registered and which are related to the world championships. The event Covid doctor, the local health authorities and the IOF Medical Experts Olli Heinonen and Katja Mjøsund have analysed the data from the event, and helped compile a list of recommendations regarding future events. Some findings from the 15 cases experienced:

  • 12 of the cases are team officials and athletes from 5 different teams participating at WOC, 3 are found among the organisers. So the virus has not been contained within a single team and there is reason to believe that further cases may have been undetected, particularly asymptomatic infections. A number of teams have tested their team members following WOC but not all.
  • There are at least 2 variants of Covid-19 present among the positive tests, meaning that the infections come from at least 2 different outbreaks. Each of the above 5 teams at WOC lived in different accommodations so any spreading between teams has most likely happened in the team areas or arenas.
  • In only 3 of the cases did the persons involved show no symptoms. Symptoms have ranged from mild to moderate, luckily no serious illness has been encountered so far.
  • In 2 of the cases, and related to each other, the positive infections and symptoms were despite the persons having had one dose of Covid-19 vaccination well in advance of the event. It is clear that vaccination does not prevent a person from becoming infected and being able to transmit the virus to others. However, all indications are that it will help preventing serious illness in the infected person.

The Covid-19 pandemic is not over and as additional IOF events are getting closer collective action is required to regain ground in conducting safe events for all participants. In general the approach chosen by the IOF and organisers has been proven to work but obviously as the pandemic situation evolves, and particularly as society is re-opening, we cannot become complacent and need to adjust where necessary. The IOF feels strongly that events should go forward but only if they can be held safely. Recommendations which have come from the medical experts are:

  • Make sure that the organiser has a dedicated person responsible for Covid matters with adequate medical competence available to them. This has worked well at all IOF events and should not be underestimated. The Covid organisation needs to anticipate positive cases in advance and have a plan of action ready. The Covid person needs to have a mandate to act across all areas of the event.
  • The bubble concept with mandatory PCR testing to enter the bubble should remain for all foreseeable future events.
  • Event bubbles should be kept over as short a time period as possible, this includes recommending teams not to arrive too early to the event.
  • Increased testing frequency, using antigen tests in addition to PCR testing.
  • Mask usage should be mandated by developments of the virus, not by the societal conventions of the organising country.
  • Make sure that the separation of teams within the bubble, at accommodations, during transportation and in team areas is possible and practiced. The organisers need to make sure that the ability for separation is in place, but the teams need to be responsible for making sure that the separation is actually implemented.
  • Make sure that the separation of teams from spectators, and from other non-bubble interactions, is possible and practiced. The organisers and the IOF need to strengthen enforcement and teams and individual athletes need to take further responsibility for implementation. If it is not possible to separate the bubble from non-bubble, spectators and public races cannot be allowed.

Why does the IOF still care about Covid-19 safety at events when society is opening up again and restrictions are being lessened in most areas? There are 2 main reasons.

  • The safety and well-being of athletes is the first priority. As the medical experts express it, each infection of an athlete with Covid-19 is a risk to the individual. Even though we so far have seen only cases with less serious consequences, Covid-19 is a dangerous virus and with potential consequences which have caused athletes in other sports to end their careers. We would like to avoid that risk. Broad vaccination programs have shown to reduce the seriousness of Covid infections, but we also know that most of our elite and younger athletes have not yet had the opportunity to become fully vaccinated. Until that is the case and until medical expertise recommends differently, we need to take Covid seriously.
  • Each infected individual also represents a risk for spreading the virus to others. The IOF feels that we collectively have a societal responsibility to decrease the spread of the virus and protect vulnerable individuals both locally where we have events and at home. With the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus and increased international travel there has been an increase in imported cases in many countries with resulting increase in hospitalisations. Of the above WOC cases only 2 were incurred during WOC week on site in the Czech Republic. The other 13 cases were discovered at home and represent a risk of spread to family, friends and acquaintances.

The IOF has seen that it is possible to organise Covid-19 safe events and will continue to do so. We will use the experience from WOC and effects will be seen already at the upcoming Orienteering World Cup at Idre Fjäll in Sweden August 12-15.