Just over two weeks ago Mammoth Mountain Ski Area closed indefinitely. The announcement, which a time traveler from a few months ago might not believe, came as a surprise to skiers who live in ski bum bliss and a relief to residents who pay attention to the news.

Mono County now has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest per capita COVID-19 rate in California, according to the National COVID-19 Interactive Map.

The coronavirus was likely here when the chairlifts were still spinning.

Within the last week, four patients became critically ill and at least two were transferred to Reno. The increase in severe COVID-19 cases suggests that a “crushing wave of very sick people is coming soon,” Public Health Officer Dr. Tom Boo said. “The reality is extremely alarming.”


Pandemic thrives on movement. Movement of people, movement of the virus. Even if local public health officials have been repeatedly advising residents to stay home, the coronavirus was likely here when the chairlifts were still spinning.

What we are seeing today happened two weeks ago, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist, explained at a World Health Organization briefing today. Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new COVID-19 map, which was created by a California State University Northridge geography professor using John Hopkins University data, shows cases per capita, nationwide. The low population density in Mono County combined with high rates of tourism could explain why it became the state’s most highly infected county per capita, Professor Steve Graves explained.

As of Sunday, there are 13 positive cases of the coronavirus in the county of 14,000 residents, a rate of 92 cases per 100,000 people. Neighboring Inyo County, which is more rural, has a rate of 43. Los Angeles shows 20 cases per 100,000 residents.

Other regions in the West with ski resorts also show higher infection rates than more densely populated cities nearby.

As of March 27, Blaine County in Idaho, home of Sun Valley, has 370 cases per 100,000 people, while Ada County, where Boise is located, is showing a rate of 11. Summit County, Utah, where Park City is located, has a rate of 233, while Salt Lake County has 15.27. And Pitkin County in Colorado, where Aspen is located, has a rate of 124 cases; Gunnison County, home of Crested Butte, has 337, while Denver is showing a rate of 36 cases per 100,000 people.

With its wide-open expanse of public lands, Mono County might seem like, and actually is, an ideal place for physical distancing. But the region’s grandiose outdoors is the economic driver of the tourism and recreation-based economy and brings millions of visitors, and their germs, to the region each year.

Annually, 67% of visitors to Mammoth are from other parts of California with 37% of the in-state visitors from the Los Angeles area, according to Mammoth Lakes Tourism. International tourism tends to be busier in the summer months because the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park is located in the county. In the winter, the ski resort is the backbone of tourism.

Like many rural counties, Mono County has limited resources. Mammoth Hospital, with 17 beds and the capacity for four people on life support, is one of 33 federally designated Critical Access Hospitals in California. It’s the combination of these things: the rapidity of infection and limited resources — that concerns the medical community.

“We are all worried that a situation is coming in which there are more really ill people than the hospital can care for, and there is no place to transfer people because all the big hospital ICUs are full of COVID-19 patients,” Dr. Boo said. “In that situation people will die because we just do not have the medical resources.”

The hospital ordered more ventilators, but the supply line is long and they won’t arrive as soon as expected. Public Health also requested more ventilators and oxygen concentrators through the California Disaster Health system, but the fulfillment date for that order is also unknown.

“The situation is dire,” Dr. Boo said.

And if healthcare workers get sick, there may be a shortage of qualified hospital staff.

“It’s apparent that many staff members are scared. I’m scared, but we are also ready,” Mammoth SPORT Center physiotherapist Tim Tollefson said. “Personally I have fear over the potential long-term lung damage if and when exposed.”

Since all non-essential in-person visits at the physical therapy clinic are suspended, Tollefson says that he may be assigned to work in other areas of the hospital if it becomes an all hands on deck situation.

“It’d be much easier to just stay home, but we need to be prepared for any outcome and need as much help as we can get,” he said. “I’m pretty envious of my friends with online sales positions at the moment.”

There is no doubt that testing has been notably low nationwide, so infection rates may never be fully accurate and most likely are inconsistent county to county, or state by state. But this new analysis is why county officials have been repeatedly asking visitors to stay away and residents to stay home.

“What does it mean? What does it tell us that we don’t already know?” Mono County Supervisor Stacy Corless said. “The virus is here, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Other regions in the West with ski resorts also show higher infection rates than more densely populated cities nearby.

“We have a small community with limited resources, but a huge capacity for caring. The thing everyone can do, instead of panic, is stay home. I also advise taking a break from the barrage of endlessly changing statistics.”

Even with the governor’s stay at home order and local officials repeatedly discouraging travel to the region, many Mammoth residents say they continue to see visitors in short term rentals around town. (Anecdotally, however, town feels much quieter than the week prior.)

Mono County has not requested the closure of State Route 203 into Mammoth Lakes, but the county also does not have control of closing a highway. It would require cooperation from Public Health, Caltrans, and California Highway Patrol.

And there are plenty of other ways into Mammoth, Sherriff Ingrid Braun reminded the Mono County Board of Supervisors last week. A highway closure might br more of a hassle for enforcement and not entirely effective.

“I don’t want to turn this into martial law,” Sheriff Braun said. “We really want voluntary compliance.”

Mono County now has a new phone line for residents to formally report violations of the stay at home order. Concerned citizens can call the Emergency Operations Center at (760) 932–5650 to report situations that may pose a hazard to public health.

Around the state, land agencies continue to close recreation sites in attempt to discourage travel and encourage social distancing. Last week Gov. Newsom closed all state park parking lots because of reported crowding. Senator Kamala Harris wrote the Department of the Interior, requesting closure of California’s 28 national park sites, until public health officials deem reopening safe; Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon were previously closed.

In the Eastern Sierra, both the Humboldt-Toiyabe and Inyo National Forest closed campgrounds, day-use facilities and visitor centers; and the Bureau of Land Management recently closed developed recreation sites across the state, which includes Mono County’s natural hot springs in Long Valley and Bridgeport. The land is still open for use with distancing practices, a BLM statement said.

The Mono County Board of Supervisors will discuss the postponement of trout fishing season opener, which is the last Saturday in April annually. However the county cannot change state fishing regulations, they plan to make a formal recommendation to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Last week Gov. Gavin Newsom said to expect statewide shelter-in-place orders to last at least two to three months. If things get worse in Mono County, with more critically ill patients and hospitals reaching capacity, residents can expect stricter guidelines to curtail all activities and even essential businesses will be ordered close, Dr. Boo said.

The latest projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predict California hospitals will reach peak resources April 24 — that is, if Californians are diligent in staying home.

This post appears here courtesy of the author. Read more from Monica at her Medium page.

Photo: Don Graham

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