BEIJING DIARY - Testing positive at the no COVID Olympics

BEIJING (AP), -- The call arrives in the afternoon, six hours after the morning mandatory test. It's immediately recognisable because of its strangeness: it is a U.S. dialing number, but the Chinese health official calling is actually from Beijing, and the call is carrying bad news.

BEIJING DIARY - Testing positive at the no COVID Olympics

BEIJING (AP), -- The call arrives in the afternoon, six hours after the morning mandatory test. It's immediately recognisable because of its strangeness: it is a U.S. dialing number, but the Chinese health official calling is actually from Beijing, and the call is carrying bad news.

He says, "Sorry to bother."

Uh-oh.

"Your morning test was positive."

Sigh.

Again?

It's not like hiking naked or laundering with gasoline, but three weeks after a bout COVID-19, it is difficult to travel to China to cover the Winter Olympics for The Associated Press. The coronavirus is Public Enemy No. 1 -- Hunted, tracked and isolated.

My throat is stuffed with tiny bits of virus DNA, which I am unable to detect. The Olympic testers, dressed in top-toe hazmat suits, are able to dig out the remnants with their cotton swabs.

That's how I got back to Isolation Room 2. This is the second time I've been here in just four days.

The cubicle is part of a Lego-like cluster of nondescript prefabs outside of the main Olympic press centre. It's roughly the same size as a double bed, but less welcoming. There's an electric heater to keep the cold out of the thin, white metal walls. It was on when I switched it on.

There's a table and a seat. They are placed next to the electrical socket so that my laptop can be powered up and I can stay connected via WiFi to the Olympic World. I am temporarily not allowed in through the two windows at the door.

Some people wave to passersby. Many people don't notice the person inside and keep him there until another test is completed.

If a positive is confirmed, the patient will be transferred quickly by ambulance to an isolation hotel for an indefinite stay. This is a very unappetizing possibility considering the many complaints from athletes who have been quarantined about their inability to eat and lack of comfort. As of Tuesday, there were 32 athletes isolated and 50 others had been released.

The ambulance is ready to go, and it's parked outside the cubicle.

All fingers and toes are crossed that a negative would trigger a return back to the relative freedom known as the "Closed Loop." The Winter Games are actually a ring fence of strict restrictions, which is a thicket of security cameras and high walls. They are isolated from the rest China and its people, who understandably want potential virus-carriers to be kept at bay.

France, where I am based, doesn't have the same fear about the coronavirus as it did during the initial days of the pandemic. The majority of French adults have been vaccinated. Multiple waves have occurred, with the latest being the fast-growing omicron variant. The virus has swept through so many homes, that people are beginning to believe that the worst is over. Even the French traditional greeting of a kiss to both cheeks has returned to life. France has suffered more than 133,000 deaths from the virus, and more than 20,000,000 infections.

China has high vaccination rates. Since the initial pandemic epicenter, Wuhan in China, was overwhelmed by cases, the ruling Communist Party has been pursuing a "zero tolerance" strategy to keep COVID-19 infection rates low. This means that most Chinese have never been infected by the virus. They don't want Olympic athletes to put them at risk.

I poke my mask out of the cubicle and ask a passing officer if he could take a picture of me inside. When he sees the sign that says "Isolation Room 2", he retorts. It was stupid of me. I should have paused at the words that Dr. Brian McCloskey spoke in the morning, as he heads an Olympic panel overseeing COVID-19 protocols.

He said that coronavirus is something we should not be able to ignore at any time during a press conference.

A tester enters the cubicle with only her eyes visible, wearing a full-body hazmatsuit. She spreads a yellow plastic bag onto the floor. She takes a swab and inserts my sample with the cotton bud into a tube. The tube is sealed in a plastic bag with the label "BIOHAZARD". The bag is then placed into a plastic canister with a screw top. The tube is then placed in a double-clamped cooler container.

The yellow bag will contain any leftovers from the swabstick and its wrapping. After spraying it 16 times with disinfectant, she rolls it into a ball and seals it with a plastic tie. Then she seals it in another plastic bag that has been sprayed eight times.

The Beijing Olympics have 35 as the number that unlocks freedom. This is the organizers' threshold between positive and negative. This number indicates how close their virus detection machines must focus on the sample. A reading of 35 or less is considered a positive and will require quarantine in an isolation center.

Since landing, I have yo-yoed over and below the redline, negative in some tests and positive in others, and just "uncertain" at times. Hence, the two spells I had in the isolation chamber, and the others in my hotel room while waiting for the results of my follow-ups.

I'm not the only one. On Day 5, more than 1,000,000 tests had been completed, with 398 positives confirmed.

McCloskey claims that medical literature has documented cases in which people have tested positive for up to 109 days. His medical panel is responsible for separating such cases from those who have recently been infected and may contaminate others. They examine the patterns of their tests over several days or weeks to determine if they have detected a new or old case.

My phone rings once more. I am being called by the testing official who has a strange number.

He says it is negative. You are free to leave.

He kept the best news for last.

He called my hotel to inquire if it was possible to prepare a special meal for me to cheer me up after the first few days of isolation.

He proudly announced that he had made spicy pork with scallions and dumplings. I had previously mentioned to him that my favorite Chinese dishes were those he had made during a disagreement about the Olympics' food.

They were delivered that night to my bedroom. He wore protective overalls with a visor. My faith in humanity was restored.

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