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COVID-19 exodus fills vacation towns with new medical pressures

By Markian Hawryluk and Katheryn Houghton and Michelle Andrews, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

The ski resort town of Vail, Colorado, on the other hand, welcomed them with open arms with its Welcome Home Neighbor campaign in May.

"We have long held the belief that in a resort community with so many second homes, that lights on are good, lights off are bad," said Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, the region's chamber of commerce.

Romer said the 56-bed Vail Health Hospital supported the campaign, particularly after visits to the town plummeted 90% in April once the ski lifts stopped running.

"We never would have launched the program if the hospital didn't sign off on it," Romer said.

The influx of patients to these rural areas is helping hospitals and clinics rebound from the drop in typical patient visits during the pandemic, but there is concern that additional growth could overwhelm local resources. So far, though, enough people seem reluctant to seek care during the pandemic, unless it's an emergency or COVID-related, that it hasn't reached a tipping point. Others might be seeking care with their providers in the big city through telehealth or the occasional run back to their primary residence. But the mix of patients is different.

In Leadville, Colorado, a town nestled in the mountains at an altitude of 10,151 feet, summertime usually means an influx of mountain bikers and runners.

 

"Leadville has these crazy 100-mile races, where we have very elite athletes from all over the planet, and they have specific medical needs," said Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger, chief medical officer at the local St. Vincent Hospital. "But what we're seeing now are these second-home owners, people who are coming from other places to spend extended periods of time in Leadville and who come with a whole host of other medical issues."

Most of the races this summer were canceled. That meant fewer extreme athletes and more Texans; fewer broken bones and turned ankles, and more chronic conditions exacerbated by the high altitude. Nonetheless, August was the busiest month ever at Zwerdlinger's family medicine practice.

Hospitals in vacation towns typically prepare for surges during holidays, said Jason Cleckler, CEO of Middle Park Health, with locations serving Colorado's Winter Park and Granby Ranch ski resorts in Grand County. During Christmas week, the population of neighboring Summit County, which houses resorts like Breckenridge and Keystone, swells from 31,000 to 250,000. But Cleckler said the COVID-19 surge in resort communities is drawn-out so hospitals may have to respond with more permanent increases in capacity.

In Big Sky, Montana, whose part-time residents include Bill Gates and Justin Timberlake, Big Sky Medical Center doubled its capacity to eight beds in anticipation of a surge in patients due to COVID-19. The center's two primary care doctors are completely booked. With so many new people in town, the hospital has accelerated plans to shift a third full-time doctor into the clinic.

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