Officials assuage fears of SARS coming to Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Officials assuage fears of SARS coming to Aspen

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

As Aspen’s summer tourist season approaches, bringing international visitors, local health officials say they are staying well-informed on new information about severe acute respiratory syndrome.

A concerned citizen at Monday’s City Council meeting asked council members if they’ve considered the potential impact of SARS on the summer tourist season. Representatives of the city’s environmental health department and the Pitkin County Community Health services say chances of exposure are minimal.

“I do think we need to keep an eye on this, but I don’t know that we need to be that concerned about SARS,” said Yvonne Hernandez, Pitkin County public health director.

There were eight new fatalities from SARS in China, five in Hong Kong and one in Singapore reported Monday, raising the worldwide death toll for severe acute respiratory syndrome to at least 333, mostly in China and Hong Kong. It has sickened around 5,000 people. SARS has prompted a rare global alert from the World Health Organization and travel advisories against affected countries.

Hernandez said symptoms of SARS include fever, cough and “productive” phlegm. There have been 10 documented cases of the disease in Colorado, compared to about 150 reported cases of influenza a week.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, SARS is primarily spread by close person-to-person contact. That includes touching the skin of other people or objects that are contaminated with the virus and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

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One of Aspen’s many sources of international guests during the summer is the Aspen Music Festival and School, which brings in not only tourists for summer events, but far-flung students, faculty and guest artists to perform.

Laura Smith, the festival’s director of marketing and corporate support, said the staff is staying abreast of the most recent information from local and national health officials.

“All we can do is monitor the situation as closely as we can,” she said. “We are consulting daily the [CDC] Web site, and keeping in touch with all local medical officials so we can follow the appropriate recommendations.”

Of the people who are coming to Aspen this year for the music school, including students, faculty and artists, Smith said the number who have visited China or Hong Kong in the 10 to 12 days before they arrive in Aspen is “really small.”

“Of course, we don’t have a good way to calculate that,” she said. “But we’d say that the number is very small – in the tens, not in the hundreds.

“Our student body and faculty tend to be at leading conservatories all over the world, and most of those are in European and American communities.”

In addition, many of the students of Asian descent who attend the music school in the summer were born in the United States – some have never even been to China, noted Councilman Tony Hershey at a Monday night meeting.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I think the media has blown this way out of proportion.”

Mayor Helen Klanderud said Aspen is like other resort communities with its international guests, and she’s more concerned with the public becoming afraid to visit than she is worried about the disease itself.

“Our entire town is a tourist community, with people coming from all over the world,” she said. “The worst thing that could happen now is if the media makes a big issue of this, it could have a negative effect on our already fragile economy right now.”

Klanderud spoke with officials at the Music Festival and School because she anticipated that someone in the community would express concerns over international guests.

“We had concerns two months ago about the West Nile virus, and we’ve worked with concerned citizens so everyone had the facts, and we had a program in place that people were comfortable with,” she said. “We’re now doing what reasonable, responsible people should do, and that’s recognize this before it’s blown out of perspective and it ends up affecting all of us – not the disease affecting us, but the perception.”

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com]

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