During the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, Naya Tapper admitted that she held doubts regarding a vaccine against infection.
“For me,” she said, “it came down to if I really needed it, like if my immune system was strong enough on its own.”
Tapper, a 26-year-old wing on the U.S. women’s rugby sevens squad, ended up contracting the virus.
“So after that, I was like, ‘OK, I definitely don’t want that to happen while I’m at the Olympics, so I’m definitely going to get that,’” she said last week during the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee virtual media summit.
The USOPC is not mandating the vaccine for its athletes or members of the delegation, although leaders maintained that the governing body strongly encourages athletes be vaccinated prior to the Games — Wednesday marked 100 days until the opening ceremony — in Tokyo this summer. They will not track who gets vaccinated of the 800-plus athletes expected to be named to Team USA for the Olympics and Paralympics, CEO Sarah Hirshland said.
As a matter of the vaccine being available to athletes and delegation members, Hirshland added, the USOPC is optimistic that anyone who wanted one could obtain it prior to traveling for the Olympics. Last month, President Joe Biden directed that all states make every adult eligible for vaccination by May 1.
“We are absolutely facilitating that access,” she said.
Roughly 11,000 Olympic athletes are expected in Tokyo from more than 200 countries, and the International Olympic Committee's stance on vaccines is essentially the same as the USOPC: encouraged, but not a requirement for participation.
“We have been taking comprehensive anti-infectious disease measures for the Tokyo Games in order to allow participation without vaccinations,” Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa said last month. “There is no change to our principle of not making vaccinations a prerequisite.”
In addition to helping facilitate access to the vaccine, the USOPC is assisting athletes in other ways to prepare for Tokyo. USOPC chief medical officer Dr. Jonathan Finnoff said the governing body is providing education through webinars and making its internal experts available.
That spirit of education helped the men’s rugby team collectively agree during a recent team meeting that vaccinations were an overall positive. Plus, said wing Perry Baker, the players have come too far with their training – on top of the year-long postponement – to not cover all of their bases in pursuit of taking the field in Tokyo.
“I (had) my doubts,” Baker said. “I just felt like I needed to have a better understanding of what was going on and everything with getting the vaccine. But at the end of the day, it’s just about being safe and being healthy.”
Carlin Isles, Baker’s teammate, acknowledged that he wasn’t the safest in regards to the virus throughout the pandemic. Still, he said, “I’m going to get the shot and I think just for the whole purpose of my teammates, because if one person gets COVID, then it could mess up our team and everybody may not be able to participate.”
Finnoff mentioned a webinar led by Dr. Paul A. Offit of the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital and the director of the Vaccine Education Center that was available to athletes and delegation members about the benefits behind vaccination. The USOPC has also provided literature to dispel myths associated with vaccines.
“Of course, this is private and protected information and something we strongly encourage but do not require,” Finnoff added.
The short-term nature of any side-effects as a result of the vaccines presented only minor hiccups – such as a slightly adjusted training schedule.
Track star Allyson Felix, who hopes to add to her nine Olympic medals this summer, said that when her group is eligible in southern California, she’d sign up right away. Gymnast Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, said the same.
The vast majority of the more than 100 athletes who participated in the media summit said they had already been vaccinated, were somewhere between first or second doses, or planned to be vaccinated in the near future as the national rollout continues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 121 million Americans have received one dose of the vaccine and 28.6% of the 18-and-older population is fully vaccinated. Some Team USA members, however, aren’t too concerned with the vaccine or are even thinking about it much.
"I know God's in control," wrestler Kyle Snyder said.
Snyder said he'll be comfortable in Tokyo because all competitors will have to test negative to step onto the mat.
“I’m not worried about it,” Snyder added. “I’m not worried about, you know, who I’m training with. The guys that train at the wrestling club are focused on being the best in the world. So we’re taking care of our bodies, and we’re healthy.”
Fellow wrestler Adeline Gray said she will receive her second dose sometime this week and encouraged others to sign up.
“I hope that people are getting a vaccine,” she said of her competition. “I would feel more comfortable with more people getting the vaccine to wrestle safely and communicate safely and have these events in-person again.”
Contributing: Associated Press
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vaccines for Team USA at Tokyo Olympics not required, but encouraged