Summit County doctors talk about how patients are recovering from the new coronavirus and whether elevation plays a role |

Summit County doctors talk about how patients are recovering from the new coronavirus and whether elevation plays a role

St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco on Thursday, March 6.
Liz Copan /

RISCO — Dr. Marc Doucette, the emergency department medical director at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, and other local physicians said there are lingering unknowns about how COVID-19 patients may be impacted by Summit County’s lower-oxygen environment above 9,000 feet.

As of Friday afternoon, Doucette said the hospital has seen “a handful” of patients who have been critically ill with COVID-19 symptoms and transported to the Denver area. Doucette said the decision to transport some patients to a lower elevation is simply part of the hospital’s protocol. Patients who are likely to be in an intensive care unit for a prolonged period of time — whether or not their symptoms are related to COVID-19 — are relocated to a lower elevation, he said. Doucette added that the Frisco hospital has the ability to put patients on ventilators for stabilization but that the typical procedure is to relocate struggling patients to partner facilities in the Denver area.

Doucette said about 80% of people affected by COVID-19 suffer mild symptoms, similar to a cold or flu, and recover fine. Asked whether high elevation puts Summit County residents at greater risk, he said doctors think risk factors for most locals are the same as they would be at a lower elevation because of long-term adaptation to living at 9,000 feet.

“We see patients that do very well up here that can be on a little bit of oxygen and may be inserted into the hospital here and get better and go home,” Doucette said. “A smaller percentage of patients may deteriorate and require a more prolonged hospital stay, potentially in the ICU and potentially on a ventilator.”

Dr. Benjamin Honigman, the founder of the University of Colorado’s Altitude Research Center, also said there is no information that suggests living at high elevation worsens COVID-19 symptoms or recovery.

“I was looking at various high-altitude locations, and it’s hard to sort of have some comparability here,” Honigman said. “If you look at Bolivia or Nepal, the number of cases aren’t as high. And in Bolivia the death rate is higher. But gosh, it’s such a poor country, you can’t really make … comparisons because of all of the other factors of bias in the population.”

As of Friday morning, Summit County public health officials reported 43 positive cases and 29 hospitalizations since March 5. There have not been any COVID-19-related deaths.

Doucette said the hospital is not near capacity and has expanded its ability to care for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients by continuing to add isolation rooms, which have negative air flow to prevent the virus from escaping the room. He also said there’s a dedicated wing on the hospital’s in-patient floor where medical personnel are keeping COVID-19 patients for the protection of other patients and staff.

“And we have the ability to expand that if needed,” Doucette said.

Despite all the precautions the hospital is taking, Doucette stressed that the Summit County community cannot let its guard down.

“We are in the middle of this,” he said. “… The elderly are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill, but we’ve also seen some younger people that are otherwise healthy who have been very ill with this. So it’s something that can affect anybody.

“So all of the social distancing and stay-at-home orders that are in place right now are serious, and we need to make sure that we are doing our part to comply with that. We obviously recognize that there is a huge economic impact to our community, especially the ski areas. The ski area employees are out of work. It’s very hard. But our top priority right now is to mitigate this situation so that we can hopefully look forward to getting back to some sort or type of normalcy in the upcoming months.”

Local physician Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos said her Frisco family clinic has consistently received about five to six calls a day over the past couple of weeks that could be COVID-19 related. With the clinic’s physical location closed to those with respiratory symptoms, its health care professionals are evaluating and treating patients via telehealth.

Ebert-Santos said she’s assessed several families with COVID-19 symptoms and exposure to individuals confirmed to have the virus. She said the virus is spreading through families, with younger individuals also experiencing symptoms.

“Mostly, they don’t need to go anywhere (for care),” Ebert-Santos said. “Some of them need oxygen, but they are mostly staying home, and they get over it in 5-10 days.”

“The kids are not as severe as the adults.” she added. “And not every adult is severe. Many adults are having mild illness, too.”

Ebert-Santos said she’s changed her attitude toward the threat of the virus locally after she initially thought it might blow over thanks to the county’s prompt shutdown, lack of visitors and plentiful open space. But after learning in recent days of vulnerable patients between the ages of 20 and 60 being transported down to the Denver area for care, Ebert-Santos believes the county is “just beginning.”

“And if we don’t take it seriously, we are really going to see a lot more very sick friends and family members,” she said.

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