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Top Japanese doctor tells fans to stay safe and watch Olympics at home

"Cheer at home with your family or with people you meet on a regular basis," Dr. Shigeru Omi said Friday.

TOKYO — Japan’s version of Dr. Anthony Fauci had some sobering advice Friday for those who plan to watch the Tokyo Olympics at a favorite watering hole or eatery: Do it at home.

“Normally, we would all love to cheer for our athletes at the venues, but under the current circumstances, I ask that you cheer at home with your family or with people you meet on a regular basis,” Dr. Shigeru Omi, a top Covid-19 adviser to the Japanese government, said at a news conference. “Please refrain from cheering in large groups in public plazas, on the streets, or in restaurants.”

It was yet another pronouncement from a top Japanese medical official that demonstrated the muted nature of local enthusiasm for this year's Olympics just a week before the Tokyo games are to officially start on July 23.

And with polls showing that many Japanese residents fear that hosting the games could lead to a spike in new Covid cases, it made it the job of reassuring the public that the Olympics would be “safe and secure” that much harder for International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and the top Japanese government officials who accompanied him Friday on a somber visit to Hiroshima.

Bach insisted there was “zero risk” of athletes in the Olympic Village infecting anybody outside the area with Covid. But his message was undercut by reports that a 20-year-old Ugandan weightlifter training for the Olympics near the city of Osaka had gone missing after officials realized he hadn’t gotten his required Covid test on Thursday.

As Bach laid a wreath in memory of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing victims, The Associated Press reported that “faint voices of protesters, who were kept at a distance, could be heard shouting ‘Go home, Bach’ and ‘You’re not welcome here.’”

Last week, when the Olympic torch arrived at Komazawa Olympic Park Stadium, instead of a cheering throng the torch carriers were greeted by protesters holding signs that read “Extinguish the Olympic torch” and “Protect lives not the Olympics.”

Japan, which has 126 million people crowded into a country that’s smaller in area than California, has been far more successful at preventing the spread of Covid-19 than the United States and other developed nations.

As of Friday, it had reported almost 832,000 confirmed cases and over 15,000 deaths, the latest NBC News figures show.

The U.S, by comparison, with a population of 328 million, has had nearly 34 million reported cases and more than 608,000 deaths.

But Japan’s comparative success is not due to its vaccination rate. While nearly half of the U.S. is now fully vaccinated, just under 20 percent of the Japanese population has received both shots, according to statistics compiled by the Our World in Data website.

Instead, public health experts say Japan’s decision early on to impose mask mandates and to adopt the “three C's” strategy championed by scientist Hitoshi Oshitani — avoiding closed spaces, crowds and contact situations — helped keep the pandemic at bay.

Oshitani has publicly come out against staging the Olympics during a pandemic. But on a shuttle ride through Tokyo a reporter was hard-pressed to find anybody on the streets or inside a building who was not wearing a mask.

In the run-up to the Olympic Games, an alarming increase in new Covid-19 cases resulted in Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last week reluctantly announcing a state of emergency in Tokyo, with the end result being that now there will be no fans in the stands to cheer on the athletes — and there is likely to be a serious shortage of pomp and pageantry.

Even the way medals are presented is likely to lose some of its luster because of Covid restrictions.

“The medals will not be given around the neck,” Bach said this week. “They will be presented to the athlete on a tray, and then the athlete will take the medal him or herself.”