As outbreaks among ski area employees add up, vaccine prioritization remains unclear

A lift operator watches as skiers unload a chairlift on opening day Nov. 6 at Keystone Resort. In January, there were 12 reported outbreaks among employees at Summit County ski resorts.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

Twelve outbreaks among ski area employees were reported in January, raising questions about when these guest-facing employees, many of whom live in congregate housing, should be vaccinated.

“We’re absolutely seeing a lot more outbreaks and cases associated with our ski resort employees, employee housing and workspaces at the ski resort,” Public Health Director Amy Wineland said in a Board of Health meeting last week.

The 12 outbreaks among ski area employees represent one-third of all outbreaks reported by the county last month.

Outbreaks have been reported in various departments — including lifts, food and beverage, rentals, sales, customer service and more — at Copper Mountain Resort, Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort. No outbreaks were reported at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in January.

Just more than half of the outbreaks are among two people, with a couple of others swelling to six or 12.

Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said that while the county has heard consistently from public health that there are outbreaks everywhere in the county, the congregate settings where many resort workers live pose an additional risk.

“We can’t deny that there is risk in congregate housing settings,” Pogue said. “We’ve seen it in senior living. We’ve seen it in the college facilities, so while I do give a lot of credit to the ski resorts for how hard they’ve worked to mitigate the risk, there is still risk.”

Pogue said ski resort employees and restaurant workers who need to continue working in guest-facing jobs should be included in the phase of vaccine distribution for essential workers, as this would help control outbreaks.

Pogue noted that service industry workers have long survived in the community by working additional hours during the winter and holiday season, but this year, those workers aren’t seeing the same hours due to pandemic restrictions.

“In resort communities, when so much of our workforce is living paycheck to paycheck — and they’re desperate right now, so they don’t have the luxury of staying home — I really would encourage the state to consider that equity issue,” Pogue said. “(Vaccinating these workers) would help our overall numbers as a community. It would help the economic livelihood of so many that live here. It’s important for us all the way around.”

Late last year, workers who live in congregate housing — such as ski industry employees — were included in an earlier phase of vaccine distribution along with essential workers. The state removed that group from the priority list altogether against the recommendations of health officials, who said those employees are at high risk of catching and transmitting the virus.

Colorado Governor’s Office Press Secretary Conor Cahill wrote in an email that the state expects many ski patrol workers already have received the vaccine since many are emergency medical technicians.

“In Phase 1A, Colorado included many EMTs in the state’s vaccination efforts,” Cahill wrote. “Since many ski patrols are EMTs, it is likely many were vaccinated during the phase 1A process.”

No outbreaks have been reported among patrollers at any ski area in Summit County.

As for the rest of ski area employees, where they fall on the vaccine prioritization schedule isn’t yet clear. The next phase of vaccine distribution, which begins Monday, Feb. 8, includes child care workers and educators. After that, front-line essential workers, such as those in public transit and grocery stores, are set to be eligible.

Summit County Public Health Nurse Lauren Gilbert wrote in an email that restaurant staff will be included in the essential workers category and said public health expects to receive clarification soon on whether other ski resort employees will be eligible in that phase.

In an attempt to prevent outbreaks, Gilbert said public health has recommended more verbal and written communication with ski area staff about established protocols in and outside of the workplace.

“It is important to acknowledge that ski resorts are among our largest employers in Summit County, so the number of outbreaks is relative,” Gilbert wrote. “In Summit County as a whole, we still have many people working while infectious (unknowingly), and some people that worked while symptomatic, which causes the disease to spread.”

Gilbert said it is critical that workers accurately and honestly complete symptom screenings prior to their shifts. She added that public health also has seen cases where virus transmission occurred in shared housing.

To help address outbreaks, the county also is working to increase access to testing for resort employees.

Gilbert said some resorts are able to provide testing on-site or by mail and that public health is working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a local ski resort, which she declined to name, to offer on-site testing.

Gilbert noted that local resorts have demonstrated commitment to following their operating plans and guidance from public health.

At Copper, spokesperson Taylor Prather said the resort is sticking with its original safety protocols of mask-wearing, physical distancing and daily employee symptom tracking but has increased the presence of mask enforcement and has put out more reminders to wear masks, such as announcements in the base area over the PA system.

“(We’re) just echoing the Summit County Public Health sentiment in constantly reminding our staff to be vigilant beyond just when they’re clocked in,” Prather said. “We do a bit of that in terms of internal communication, but obviously we’re focused on making sure that it’s a safe environment for our staff while working as well as our guests while visiting.”

At Keystone and Breckenridge, spokesperson Loryn Roberson said the resorts are continuing their original safety processes of health screenings, physical distancing and mask-wearing.

“(We’re) really just reminding employees to make smart decisions when they’re outside of work and continuing to educate them on what they need to do to keep each other safe and also make sure that we have a successful rest of the season,” Roberson said.

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