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In Coronavirus Hotspot, Vail Health CEO Makes Dire Call for Social Distancing

This article first appeared in the Colorado Public Radio on March 18, 2020.

The American Eagle chairlift closed on Sunday morning March 15, 2020. Gov. Jared Polis ordered all ski areas in Colorado to close Sunday March 15 because of the coronavirus outbreak, and the state advised anyone who lives in or visited Summit County in the past week to self-distance from others. Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

The leader of Vail Health, which serves mountain communities hit hard by the new coronavirus, pleaded for more serious community action Wednesday in order to stem the spread of the disease.

In a letter to patients and community members, Vail Health CEO Will Cook notes pointed to the fact that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the area has jumped from 7 to more than 50 in the past week.

“The real number of local cases in the Eagle River Valley is more likely hundreds if not thousands of people,” Cook said. “It is everywhere here; we just don’t have the test results to prove it, and we won’t anytime soon.”

Cook worries that an exponential spread of the disease would overwhelm Colorado’s hospitals and the healthcare system, as countries like Italy have seen.

“If we don’t commit to disciplined social distancing now, our 56-bed Vail Health Hospital will be overflowing within 2-4 weeks,” Cook said in the statement. “We will not have enough respirators to keep people alive, and locals of all ages will be dying.”

Colorado’s high country has been struck hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. The first confirmed case was in Summit County and the mountain communities were the first place where state health officials confirmed community spread. According to the state’s latest numbers, Eagle County, which includes Vail and the surrounding areas, has confirmed 39 cases and Summit County has identified four.

To avoid transmission, health officials recommend that people stay at least six feet from others and avoid touching and gathering in groups of more than 10 people. Cook called for even stricter measures.

“Everything non-essential has to stop or close for now,” he said, on the same day that Eagle County called for more aggressive health mandates. “This means no more dinners with friends, casual kid Nerf gun wars in the neighborhood, or basketball at the park.”

Eagle County’s public health department has asked retail stores and other business services not to exceed 10 people at one time, and most local government offices have closed to the public. Health officials have also asked visitors and tourists to stop coming to the area for now.

Vail Resorts has closed all of its North American resorts in response to the coronavirus outbreak, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Crested Butte.

“Our decision to end the season now is evidence of the fast-moving situation involving COVID-19, and it was not an easy one to make as we deeply considered the extended impact it will have on our guests, employees and communities,” Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, said in a statement.

Gov. Jared Polis issued an order on Saturday to temporarily shut down all ski resorts in Colorado. The decision is expected to have a major impact on Colorado’s ski economy.

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