Why a ski destination in Idaho has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country

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Friday March 6, DJ Jazzy Jeff was making records for a packed house at the Whiskey Jacques bar in Ketchum, Idaho. The celebration closed a week of festivities in Ketchum and the neighboring Sun Valley for the annual black summit of the National Brotherhood of Skiers (N.B.S.), the largest African-American ski and snowboard association in the world. Nearly seven hundred members of the Brotherhood had made the trip from their home across the United States, or in some cases from London, for their forty-seventh annual meeting in the mountains. The mayor of Sun Valley welcomed the brotherhood with pomp and ceremony, including the keys to the city and a proclamation of March 6 as National Day of the Brotherhood of Skiers.

The following week, more than one hundred and twenty-six members of the Brotherhood came down with symptoms of the coronavirus. Twenty positive tests for COVID-19 and eight were hospitalized, including three in intensive care units. On March 30, DJ Jazzy Jeff announced that he had pneumonia and associated coronavirus symptoms. Since then, two N.B.S. longtime members Nathaniel Jackson of Pasadena and Charles Jackson of Los Angeles, who shared a room in Sun Valley, died of the disease.

At least twice in March, President Trump has cited Idaho as an example of a certain type of American place: wide open, capable, unresponsive to a health care crisis. “Some parts of our country are very slightly affected. Very small numbers, “Trump said on March 24. “You look at Nebraska, you look at Idaho, you look at Iowa, you look at a lot – I could name many countries that run it very, very well and that are not affected to the same extent, or, frankly , not even nearly as far as New York. Five days later, Trump ticked the same “country” triumvirate. “I said,” What about Nebraska? What about Idaho? What about Iowa? ” And you know what? These people are so awesome – all of the Midwest, ”he said, missing Idaho on the map for a thousand miles or so.

Between Trump’s statements, however, Idaho Governor Brad Little issued a statewide home stay order, reflecting a reality not recognized in White House briefings: that what might look like to empty spaces on the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 The world map hides, in fact, groups of concentrated diseases. Blaine County, Idaho, for example, about the size of Delaware, has only three hundred ninety-nine confirmed cases and two deaths. But, with around twenty-two thousand full-time residents, the county’s infection rate is now the highest in the country – even higher than that of Westchester and Rockland counties in New York, and perhaps on par with the previous pandemic epicentres in northern Italy and Wuhan. , China. And, as in Italy, the situation is exacerbated in the aging seaside resorts of Ketchum and Sun Valley, where the average age of residents is 46 and 60 years respectively, and where, during a recent April fish , a local group of pranksters stationed walkers on the edges of the main intersections of the city.

Idaho’s doctors and nurses face the greatest danger. More than fifty health workers tested positive in the central central health district of the state, some 40 of whom work for the St. Luke hospital system in Blaine County and Twin Falls in the south. Jesse Vanderhoof, a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in Ketchum, administered nasal swabs at a driving test site before falling ill. As his condition deteriorated, on March 24, his wife sent him back to E.R.; a few hours later, she received a call saying that her 39-year-old husband, previously in good health, had suffered a seizure and had been taken on a rescue flight to Boise. He was put on a ventilator for several days before regaining the strength to breathe on his own.

Brent Russell, one of two E.R. doctors from St. Luke’s in Ketchum who tested positive, battled a hundred and four degrees fever with trembling chills; he would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to catch his breath. Russell wrote a letter to local Idaho Mountain express imploring a community which, according to him, could not or did not want to adapt to the new rules of the pandemic. “People didn’t take this seriously,” he told me. “I was looking out the windows of my house and I saw groups of people talking and gathering in the street.” Like his wife, son, niece and nephew all exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 Russell applauded Governor Little’s abrupt stay, a move that surprised many people in a state known as a haven for anti-government individualists. “We need a heavy hand right now,” said Russell. “We need all the strength to stop this thing. “

What has bothered Russell the most in the past two weeks is how quickly some members of his community have turned to find someone to blame. Local scores started with March 20 article in Idaho Mountain express, who alleged that a National Ski Brotherhood après-ski dance party at the Sun Valley River Run Lodge on March 6, hours before DJ Jazzy Jeff got on the scene, could have been the cause of the epidemic. (I worked for several years as a reporter for Idaho Mountain express.) The article cites several anonymous sources who fell ill as a result of the party and assumes that the black ski club is the source of the virus. “I would think they would like to follow this,” the newspaper said, citing a woman from the brotherhood.

The N.B.S. president, Henri Rivers, told me that the Mountain express published their story online before giving them or their organization the opportunity to respond. (The Mountain express claims to have contacted several N.B.S. representatives for comment.) “I was livid. They hinted that we were trying to harm the city, “he said, noting that his nearly seven hundred skiers spent more than a million dollars during their week in central Idaho, and that dozens returned seriously ill. A week after the story was published, the mayors of Ketchum and Sun Valley signed a joint letter condemning the allegations as “baseless and undeserved”.

“If we want to point the finger at someone, point it to me for not closing this town earlier,” said Neil Bradshaw, mayor of Ketchum. “We believe the virus arrived from Seattle, probably a few weeks earlier. They’ve probably caught the virus from a lot of people here, and for that I feel bad. “

A ski resort is, in many ways, an ideal breeding ground for an epidemic. Skiing and snowboarding can look like solitary activities from afar; one can assume that helmets, goggles and neck warmers work as combinations of alpine hazardous materials. But, in the big stations, the fast winter release sections on the tracks are interrupted by long chairlift and gondola rides, during which people sit shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee with a troop of foreigners in perpetual rotation. The National Fraternity may not have brought the virus to Idaho, but it did bring the party, and, in ski cities across America and the rest of the world this winter, the two went hand in hand. Ski resorts in California, Colorado and elsewhere “have higher infection rates than the more densely populated cities nearby”, Adventure Journal noted, including Mono County, California, which is home to the Mammoth Mountain ski area, which now has the rate of COVID-19 in the state. Several governments in Europe have screened hundreds of cases of coronavirus in an Austrian ski town, with some epidemiological reports identifying the beer pong tables as a potential source of infection. In Mexico, the president of the Mexican Stock Exchange was positive after returning from a ski holiday in Vail, Colorado.

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