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To keep Olympics COVID-free, China creates invisible bubbles around facilities

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In just three weeks, China will host the Beijing Winter Olympics. They welcome visitors to a country that has some of the world's strictest COVID policies. And they do so amid the omicron surge. NPR's Emily Feng reports on how Beijing is preparing to keep the games - if they can - COVID-free.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The fences have gone up already outside the Olympic Park in Beijing. Inside, thousands of international athletes will be competing in the Winter Olympic Games starting this February. They'll be ferried to and from the sports facilities and designated hotels within what authorities called the closed loop - a series of hotels and conference centers and stadiums in downtown Beijing, carefully guarded to cut off all access with the greater Chinese population.

AOWEN CAO, BYLINE: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: NPR's Beijing producer, Aowen Cao, asks one of the guards patrolling the fences how the loops work. Only people in vehicles with credentials can enter, he says. No one else can. Hosting the Winter Olympics is a massive undertaking for China because for the last two years, authorities have taken some of the most rigorous prevention policies anywhere.

IVAN HUNG: If you open up right now in China, what is going to happen is that we're going to see a surge of - huge surge of cases.

FENG: Here's Dr. Ivan Hung, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Hong Kong.

HUNG: And of course, we will see a lot of elderly people get very sick. And they will probably end up in hospitalization.

FENG: That risk is why China has closed its borders. The few people who do enter quarantine for three weeks, just a handful of cases can completely lock down entire cities. But now, in order to host the Olympics, Beijing has to let in thousands of foreign athletes and journalists. So what China has done is create invisible bubbles around every Olympic facility. Cheng Xiangshei (ph), a Beijing Olympic official, describes the measures inside these bubbles at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHENG XIANGSHEI: (Through interpreter) Foreign journalists entering the bubble's hotels need two negative test results in the last 96 hours, a clean health certificate and a vaccination record.

FENG: And while athletes won't need to quarantine upon arrival, they will have to prove they're fully vaccinated and be tested before and after landing in Beijing. Should anyone test positive, they'll be quarantined and treated inside the bubble. Interviews will have to take place two meters apart or behind glass panels. Armpit sensors will monitor the body temperature of athletes as they eat in automated canteens, powered in part by robots rather than people. Beijing Olympic Committee's health officer Huang Cheng (ph) says omicron has not changed their plans.

HUANG CHENG: (Through interpreter) Presently, we are operating smoothly. And everything is under control. As of yet, we have no plans to lock down Beijing and seal the city.

FENG: But unlike other Olympics, no one has been able to buy tickets. Instead, China's invited select residents who can only enter the events after a COVID screening that could take up to seven hours. One of the three Olympic bubbles is right here in the middle of central Beijing. It's now been cut out from the city by chicken wire and sheet metal. Mr. Wu (ph) works at a Starbucks literally pressed up against the fence but which remains open to the public. He says he's confident the barriers will work. But like everyone NPR interviewed for this story, he only gave his last name because of how sensitive and high stakes Olympic preparations have become.

WU: (Through interpreter) Almost everything is sealed off. How would you have any contact whatsoever with the foreign athletes inside?

FENG: Next to the Starbucks is a hotel, where Chinese Olympic volunteers are already living inside the closed loop. They're among the 19,000 staff and volunteers serving the games. They'll be in the bubble for the next two months throughout the Olympics, and for some, through the Paralympics as well. Exiting the bubble will be like traveling from a foreign country back into China. They tell NPR they will be subject to a three-week quarantine before being able to go home.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY KEANE SONG, "FLIGHT 19") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.