In early March, a series of storms finally broke up a dismally dry winter in the Sierra Nevada, prompting skiers, snowboarders and part-time residents to flock to Truckee to play in the snow.
People in the town’s medical community also took notice, but for a darker reason.
“We just started to see our COVID-19 positive lab tests start to take off,” said Tahoe Forest Health CEO Harry Weis.
As the positive tests ticked upward, Weis noticed the local infection rate was more than nine times the California statewide rate and more than three times the rate of the U.S. as a whole.
He thought of how the deadly virus spread in other tourist-oriented small towns such as Sun Valley, Idaho, where the 25-bed hospital became overwhelmed as Blaine County emerged as the place with the highest rate of infection in the U.S.
Weis didn’t want Truckee, which has a 25-bed hospital, to follow the same path.
“We felt we needed to get a message out,” he said.
The concern added extra urgency to efforts by the medical community and officials in Truckee and Nevada County to implore visitors and part-time residents with second homes to stay away until the pandemic wanes.
As of April 8, Nevada County had 34 confirmed cases; 24 of them, or 70 percent, were in Truckee at the east end of the county.
“We are a coronavirus hotspot,” said Nevada County Supervisor Richard Anderson, whose district includes Truckee. “Our models predict the number of people who could seek care here could easily exceed the number of hospital beds available.”
Weis said there are already five COVID-19 patients in the hospital, which has six ICU beds. The hospital has the potential to grow to a surge capacity of 44 beds, but the extra space would be for patients who don’t need ICU treatment or a ventilator.
“We are not like the San Francisco area or L.A. area where there are more than 100 hospitals,” Weis said. “We could be easily overrun.”
Another problem facing the hospital is an increasing number of employees with positive tests or symptoms of the disease.
Weis said that across the Tahoe Forest system in Truckee and Incline Village, 11 employees have tested positive and another 120 are at home due to showing potential symptoms.
The numbers aren’t entirely accounted for in Nevada County totals because many employees live in places like Reno in neighboring Washoe County or in Placer County in the Lake Tahoe basin.
“You have to presume every person you see out there, including health care workers, may be infected,” said Weis, who added that health care workers are, “really putting it all on the line and risking their lives.”
The stress to the system is why officials are pressing people who have options to hunker down elsewhere to do so.
That covers tourists using short term rentals, who would be in violation of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to stop non-essential travel, and people who own second homes and are considering using them as their shelter-in-place location.
“Part-time residents have options our full-time residents don’t,” Weis said. “If you are a part-time owner, this isn’t the best place to be.”
So far, Truckee and Nevada County haven’t introduced stricter enforcement measures such as Gunnison County, Colorado, home to the resort town Crested Butte.
Officials there have warned that tourists or second home owners who violate the community’s orders against non-essential visitation could face a fine of up to $5,000 or 18 months in jail.
Weis said he’s hopeful Truckee visitors and second-home owners will heed requests and warnings to stay away and locals will follow public health advice to stay home and, when out on essential errands, wear masks and maximize distance from other people.
“I firmly believe we are really slowing this down and we can bring this to a stop,” Weis said. “We’d love to be able to report out in a couple weeks there is clear evidence this hotspot hopefully has cooled quite a bit.”
Benjamin Spillman covers the outdoors and environment in Northern Nevada, from backcountry skiing in the Sierra to the latest from Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.
Read or Share this story: https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2020/04/09/truckee-reno-covid-19-coronavirus-hospital-capacity-limited/5127493002/