Jill Biden heads to Tokyo amid growing concern about Covid and the Olympics

Jill Biden heads to Tokyo amid growing concern about Covid and the Olympics
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Jill Biden departs Wednesday morning for a five-day international trip to Tokyo, Japan, her first solo trip abroad as first lady of the United States.

However, Biden’s visit to kick-off the Olympic Games in support of America’s athletes comes amid rising Covid-19 numbers in Japan, and specifically at the Games. As of Tuesday, the number of cases linked to the Tokyo Games had exceeded 70, despite stringent guidelines such as multiple tests, social distancing requirements and mask-wearing.

The 2020 Summer Games — already delayed a year because of Covid-19 — are set to start on Friday as the cases fuel safety concerns.

“There’s been no change, (Jill Biden is) still planning on attending the games,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday, adding, “The President, the first lady felt it was important to have the delegation lead at the highest level. So, she is looking forward to continuing her travels.”

Biden has a packed schedule for Japan, which includes not only the Olympic Games, but at least two diplomatic events.

After landing in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon at Yokota Air Force Base, the first lady will spend the evening at dinner at Akasaka Palace with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his wife, Mariko Suga, Biden’s press secretary Michael LaRosa told CNN. The following day, Biden will have a bilateral event with Mariko Suga, also at the palace, prior to participating in a get-together with members of Team USA. The meet-and-greet will be held virtually, per LaRosa.

Also on Friday, the first lady will have an audience with Emperor Naruhito at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Biden will then attend the Olympics opening ceremony at Olympic Stadium. The ceremony will be scaled-back due to Covid-19 precautions, organizers have said, though details of just how much it will change from its traditional pomp and circumstance remain sketchy just days out. There will be flag-bearers from each of the participating countries, and a smattering of VIPs and dignitaries in the stands, the first lady included.

Biden’s Saturday in Tokyo includes one non-athletic event. She will dedicate a room in the Chief of Mission Residence to Irene Hirano Inouye and Daniel Inouye, the late senator and Medal of Honor recipient from Hawaii.

A viewing party of the USA vs. Mexico softball game with US Embassy officers and their families follows, before Biden heads to “several Olympic events before departing Tokyo,” according to a release from the East Wing.

The more contagious Delta variant of Covid-19 now makes up 83% of sequenced samples in the United States, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday at a Senate committee hearing on Capitol Hill.

“This is a dramatic increase, up from 50% for the week of July 3,” she said.

Globally, the Delta variant remains a health worry, especially among the unvaccinated. Covid vaccines have proven effective against contracting the Delta variant, and in preventing severe disease and hospitalization if contracted.

In Japan, only 22.4% of the population fully vaccinated, according to CNN’s global vaccine tracker.

As a result of the low numbers of vaccinated citizens, and in an effort to control what could be a catastrophic outbreak, there will be no spectators in the stands, and the entirety of the Olympics will take place under the country’s imposed coronavirus state of emergency, already in place.

This will not be Biden’s first time at the Olympics in support of America’s athletes. As second lady in 2010, she and then-Vice President Joe Biden attended the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada.

Though the main focus of her trip remains Japan and the Olympics, Biden is taking the opportunity to visit two states on her way in and out of the country, part of her ongoing travel to several parts of the United States to encourage Covid-19 vaccinations.

Prior to arrival in Japan, the first lady will stop in Alaska, where she will greet military and veteran families upon landing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Afterward, she’ll head the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage for a vaccine event.

On her way back to Washington from Japan, Biden has tacked on a stop in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she will again participate in an event centered on the importance of getting the Covid vaccine.

In recent weeks, Biden has traveled to more than 10 states, each time participating in activities concentrated on boosting lagging vaccination numbers as the country trends towards stagnancy, and case numbers once again are on the rise.

Psaki said Tuesday the first lady is fully aware of the issues facing the games as a result of Covid, and that she and her staff and delegation will take precautions. “They will be following very strict safety and health protocols limiting engagement with the public, keeping our footprint as small as possible,” said Psaki.

Biden’s planned in-person attendance also comes as the head of the Tokyo games on Tuesday made no promise he wouldn’t enforce an 11th-hour cancellation of the Olympics should the Covid-19 case numbers rise exponentially.

“We cannot predict what the epidemic will look like in the future. So as for what to do should there be any surge of positive cases, we’ll discuss accordingly if that happens,” said Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto during a news conference in Tokyo.

“At this stage, the coronavirus situation might get worse or better, so we will think about what to do when the situation actually arises,” Muto said.

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