Category Archives: Health

A conversation with Dr. Chris on neonatal oxygen levels at elevations 9000’ and above

My name is Austin Ethridge, I am a physician assistant student from Red Rocks Community College PA program who has been fortunate enough to have completed my pediatric rotation with Dr. Chris in Frisco, Colorado, this month. Dr. Chris has extensive experience providing care to the pediatric residents of Summit County, having established her practice here in 2000, following 20 years as a pediatrician on Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, southeast of Japan. She has a unique perspective on high altitude health, having transitioned from sea level to the 8000′ and above elevations unique to Summit County. Since moving here, she has been advocating for more in-depth medical research regarding the needs specific to these high-altitude communities. We are here in her office today at the Ebert Family Clinic to discuss neonatal oxygen use in Summit County.

Dr. Chris, based on your experience, why do neonates need oxygen at a higher elevation? Is it because they need to acclimate?

Yes, that’s basically it, and smaller lung size at birth.

Yes, that’s what I read. Basically, the maternal physiology compensates for the higher altitude. When the infant is born, their lung size and physiology need to catch up to the altitude.

Based on your practice, when do you place neonates on oxygen?

Usually at 89% or below, but you see, that’s just it. Many parents ask why their children need to be on oxygen when neither themselves nor their siblings were on oxygen. One of the primary reasons that this has become more of an issue is the less invasive methods of measuring oxygen saturation in the blood. Before the 1990s, the only time to measure oxygen saturation in a newborn was if a concern for illness or pulmonary problems existed, which was completed by obtaining an arterial blood gas, a very invasive procedure. Do you know at what oxygen saturation level we begin to detect cyanosis in neonates?

Around75%, which means before the pulse oximeter used today, we had no idea if the infant’s oxygen saturation was in the 80s! Now that we have the pulse oximeter, we have access to so much more information. And this is why it is essential to determine the normal oxygen levels for these infants at higher elevations.

Does this include cyanosis or blue discoloration of the hands and feet, or is it just central as in the face and chest?

The blue discoloration of legs and arms do not count; this is very common and not concerning, only the discoloration of the trunk and face.

Yes, based on the articles that I have been reading while I have been here, there are not many studies that reflect normal oxygen saturation in neonates at a higher elevation. Most of the articles that I did find determined that newborn oxygen saturation is lower at elevations of around 6000’, with average values within the range of 89-96% SpO2 compared to greater than 97% at sea level. However, there could be a significant difference between 9000’-10000’ feet and the 6000’ in these studies.1-3

That is exactly right, and that is why I want to do a study here in Summit County to determine the average oxygen saturation at these altitudes.

On average, how many newborns do you place on oxygen in Summit County?

About 40% of newborns are placed on oxygen due to low oxygen levels at birth, and I would say that less than 5% will still need oxygen after their two-week visit; however, this rate may be higher in those that live at elevations of 10,000′ or greater. In general, studies have observed that the lowest oxygen levels tend to occur around the 4th day of life and then improve from this point onward. What is the main complication that we are worried about in infants that have low oxygen levels?

Pulmonary hypertension. At birth, when the fetal circulation is shunted back through the lungs, the pulmonary pressure decreases to allow this to happen. If the oxygen levels are too low, the vessels in the lungs may not dilate enough, and this could lead to elevated pulmonary pressures. I read an interesting study that found increased pulmonary pressures in Tibet children as measured by ECHO cardiogram until the age of 14. These pressures were noted to increase with increasing elevation but to decrease with increasing age. Generally, by the age of 14, the pulmonary pressures had normalized; the authors considered this to be a normal physiological response. However, it is worth noting that these children in the study came from generations of individuals that have always lived at these altitudes.4-5

That is correct. That is the difference between adaptation and acclimatization. Many of the children that live up here are acclimatized, meaning that their bodies have adapted on a physiological level, but their genetics remain the same. However, adaptation is observed in many families that have lived at high elevations for generations; in these instances, the changes have occurred at the genetic level.

That makes sense; so the data from some of those studies may not directly apply to the population here.

That is correct. Are we worried about brain damage in this setting of low blood oxygen levels?

No, I do not think so.

We are not! In fact, as an example of this: when I was in Saipan, there was a child that had a cyanotic, congenital heart defect that was unable to be repaired for social reasons. This child always appeared blue, and his oxygen saturation would have been very low. He did just fine in terms of development and progress in academics. There were no signs of developmental delay or any other neurological problems at all.

Are there any resources you recommend for parents whose newborn may need to be on oxygen?

Yes, I have a handout that I provide to all families whose infants are on oxygen. 

Are there any red flags or signs that the newborns’ oxygen may not be high enough when they are sent home? Is there anything parents should look out for? I know that you mentioned the oxygen level needs to be as low as 75% before there are any signs of concerning central cyanosis.

No, there really are no clinical signs. A company called Owlet produces a sock for the newborn’s foot that monitors oxygen saturation. I am not sure how accurate this is, but if the parents really want to do something to monitor the oxygen level, this could be a way to do so. It is pretty expensive. On an aside, we are currently in communication with this company regarding future opportunities to conduct research using their product with regards to newborn oxygen saturation at higher elevations, so stay tuned for more developments on this topic.

Are there any risks to starting the infant on oxygen?

No, not at the level that these newborns are sent home on. In premature infants, there is a risk associated with oxygen therapy for eye and lung disease. However, these premature infants are placed on very high flow rates and positive pressures. The damage is actually caused by the pressures of the oxygen being too high. This is not the case for the newborns that we place on oxygen.

Are there any risks to infants or children growing up at high altitude?

Yes, there is some evidence of a very slight increased risk of pulmonary hypertension, but this is very rare.

Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss this, Dr. Chris!

References

  1. Ravert P, Detwiler TL, Dickinson JK. Mean oxygen saturation in well neonates at altitudes between 4498 and 8150 feet. Adv Neonatal Care. 2011 Dec;11(6):412-7. doi: 10.1097/ANC.0b013e3182389348. Erratum in: Adv Neonatal Care. 2012 Feb;12(1):27. PMID: 22123474.
  2. Morgan MC, Maina B, Waiyego M, Mutinda C, Aluvaala J, Maina M, English M. Oxygen saturation ranges for healthy newborns within 24 hours at 1800 m. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2017 May;102(3):F266-F268. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2016-311813. Epub 2017 Feb 2. PMID: 28154110; PMCID: PMC5474098.
  3. Bakr AF & Habib HS, Normal Values of Pulse Oximetry in Natewborns at High Altitude. Journal of Tropical Pediatrics 2005; 51(3) 170-173.
  4. Qi HY, Ma RY, Jiang LX, et al. Anatomical and hemodynamic evaluations of the heart and pulmonary arterial pressure in healthy children residing at high altitude in China. Int J Cardiol Heart Vasc. 2014;7:158-164. Published 2014 Nov 12. doi:10.1016/j.ijcha.2014.10.015
  5. Remien K, Majmundar SH. Physiology, Fetal Circulation. [Updated 2020 Aug 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539710/
  6. Thilo EH, Park-Moore B, Berman ER, Carson BS. Oxygen Saturation by Pulse Oximetry in Healthy Infants at an Altitude of 1610 m (5280 ft): What Is Normal? Am J Dis Child. 1991;145(10):1137–1140. doi:10.1001/archpedi.1991.02160100069025

Austin Ethridge is a second-year physician assistant student at the Red Rocks Community College Physician Assistant Program. Originally from the Colorado front range, Austin attended the University of Northern Colorado where he obtained both a bachelors and masters degree in chemistry prior to attending PA school. In his free time, Austin enjoys spending time with his friends and family, reading, and cycling.

WMS Blog Entry No. 5: Advances in Frostbite, a Synopsis of Dr. Peter Hackett’s Lecture

Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissue. The main pathophysiology of frostbite is ischemia. Basically, where there is blood flow there is heat and where there is no blood flow there is no heat to that area. The vasoconstriction and loss of blood flow to the skin predispose the skin to becoming frozen. Heat transfer depends on blood flow and blood flow depends on sympathetic nerve tone. In our extremities, there are only nerves that cause vasoconstriction. Exposure to cold or a drop in the body’s core temperature can induce vasoconstriction from these sympathetic nerves in which decreases the amount of blood flow to the extremities to keep the central aspect of the body warm and central organs well-perfused to help to maintain the body’s core temperature.

Frostbite usually occurs in the apical areas of the skin also called glabrous, which is Latin for smooth because these areas have no hair. These areas include the face, palmar surface of the hand, and the plantar surface of the foot. These areas of the skin are rich in arteriovenous anastomoses, which are low-resistance connections between the small arteries and small veins that supply the peripheral blood flow in the apical regions of the skin. These anastomoses allow the blood to flow into the venous plexus of the skin without passing through capillaries, and play a major role in temperature regulation.

Causative factors of frostbite include inadequate insulation, circulatory compromise, dehydration, moisture, trauma, and immobility. All of these factors in combination can result in frostbite.

The behavioral risk factors include mental illness, alcohol/drug use, fear, apathy, and anxiety. All of these risk factors can contribute to frostbite, generally, from poor self-care.

Frostbite is said to kill twice during its two phases that occur. The first phase is the frozen phase in which ice crystals form in the intracellular compartment at about 29 degrees Fahrenheit. These ice crystals will suck the fluid out of the endothelial cells and become enlarged causing the endothelial cells to lyse from dehydration and interrupt microcirculation. The second phase is the rewarming phase in which the skin thaws and is at risk for microthrombi production and necrosis due to prolonged injury to those endothelial cells.

The usual phase at which we see frostbite in a clinical setting is after thawing, in which the skin looks flushed pink, red, with the appearance of blebs that form one hour to twenty-four hours after thawing. These blebs can rupture spontaneously in 4-10 days and shortly after, a cast-like eschar forms. Then the eschar usually sheds in 21-30 days.

Deep Frostbite

Frostbite is classified based on the depth of tissue damage, from superficial with no tissue damage being mild and deep tissue damage including muscle, bone, or tendon being classified as severe frostbite. The mildest form of frostbite is called frostnip. Frostnip is freezing of the skin but there is no actual freezing injury and doesn’t cause permanent skin damage.

Stages of Frostbite

What can you do in the field for Frostbite?

It is important to provide supportive care with IV or PO hydration to prevent dehydration. If the affected area is frozen with no imminent rescue, it is recommended to thaw the area with warm water and try to avoid refreezing. You can give NSAIDs, such as Ibuprofen, 400 mg every 8 hours, or ketorolac 30 mg IV. If the person is at altitude and their oxygen saturation is low you can provide oxygen. However, the individual must be taken to the nearest hospital for further treatment, especially in cases of severe frostbite.

New research studies have been exploring the use of thrombolytics in the treatment of frostbite. Many of the research studies have shown that IV TPA or iloprost may be of benefit to administer in a hospital setting. However, iloprost is not approved for IV use in the United States and other prostacyclins have not been studied for the use of frostbite as of yet. There are current literature and guidelines that have been published for the prevention and treatment of frostbite, however, more research is needed to further support standardized treatment of all patients with frostbite with thrombolytic therapy. Hopefully, these new studies will encourage more research into using thrombolytics and prostacyclins for frostbite.

In the meantime, it would be best to stay warm to prevent frostbite. Tips to help in frostbite prevention include:

  • Limit time you’re outdoors in cold, wet, or windy weather. Pay attention to weather forecasts and wind chill readings. In very cold, windy weather, exposed skin can develop frostbite in a matter of minutes.
  • Dress in several layers of loose, warm clothing. Air trapped between the layers of clothing acts as insulation against the cold. Wear windproof and waterproof outer garments to protect against wind, snow, and rain. Choose undergarments that wick moisture away from your skin. Change out of wet clothing — particularly gloves, hats, and socks — as soon as possible.
  • Wear a hat or headband that fully covers your ears. Heavy woolen or windproof materials make the best headwear for cold protection.
  • Wear socks and sock liners that fit well, provide insulation, and avoid moisture. You might also try hand and foot warmers. Be sure the foot warmers don’t make your boots too tight, restricting blood flow.
  • Watch for signs of frostbite. Early signs of frostbite include red or pale skin, prickling, and numbness.
  • Eat well-balanced meals and stay hydrated. Doing this even before you go out in the cold will help you stay warm.

Lauren Pincomb Apodaca is a second-year Physician Assistant student in the Red Rocks Community College Physician Assistant Program. Originally from Las Cruces, New Mexico, she graduated from New Mexico State University with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and a Bachelor of Art in Chemistry. After obtaining her undergraduate degrees, she was accepted as a Ph.D. fellow in Pharmacology at the University of Minnesota where she conducted research in a biomedical laboratory doing cancer research. She then realized that she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives through hands-on experience rather than working in a laboratory. She went back to New Mexico and received her certification as a nursing assistant and started from the ground up to reach her ultimate goal of being a Physician Assistant. She has enjoyed living in Colorado and the many outdoor activities that Colorado has to offer. Her favorite are kayaking, fishing, and hiking. She is looking forward to graduating soon.

References:

Hill, C. (2017, December 22). Cutaneous Circulation – Arteriovenous Anastomoses. Retrieved September 27, 2020, from https://teachmephysiology.com/cardiovascular-system/special-circulations/cutaneous-circulation/

Frostbite. (2019, March 20). Retrieved September 27, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/frostbite/symptoms-causes/syc-20372656

WMS Blog Entry No. 4, Part I: Tick Bite Prevention and Proper Removal

Ticks are blood feeding parasites. Ticks are known as vectors because they can transmit different pathogens responsible for several diseases including Colorado Tick Fever, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), Tularemia and relapsing fever. While there are 27 species of ticks in Colorado, almost all human encounters w/ ticks in Colorado involve the Rocky Mountain wood tick, a tick that only lives in the western U.S. and southern Canada at elevations between 4,000 and 10,000 feet. Another highly prevalent tick is the brown dog tick which is specific to dogs.

Before you go out!

DO:

  • Wear protective clothing! Wearing long sleeved shirts, long pants tucked into your socks and close toed shoes can keep ticks from getting onto your skin, as ticks are usually acquired while brushing against low vegetation.
    • wear light colored clothing, as this makes it easier to find ticks that have been picked up
    • Treat clothing w/ permethrin as this can help kill or repel ticks for days to weeks! Do not apply directly to skin.
  • Use Tick repellent. This includes the well-known DEET along with picaridin, IR3535 and oil of lemon eucalyptus
    • Repellent can be applied either directly to skin or to clothing, AND is most effective if applied to the lower body that is likely to come in contact with ticks first!
    • If applying repellents to skin:
      • DO NOT use high concentration formulas on children (DEET concentration > 30)
      • AVOID applying repellents to your hands or other areas that may come in contact with your mouth
      • DO NOT put repellent on wounds
      • ALWAYS wash skin that has had repellent on it.
  • Remember: Dogs can get ticks too! Don’t forget to consult your veterinarian about how to protect your furry friends against ticks.

When you go out: DO NOT assume that you won’t get bit.

  • Avoid tick habitat
    • Ticks are most active in spring and early summer and are concentrated where animal hosts most commonly travel, including areas of brush along field and woodland edges or commonly traveled animal host paths though grassy areas.
      • DO try to avoid exposure in these areas by staying in the center of marked trails when hiking to avoid brushing vegetation that ticks may be perched on waiting for you!
    • If possible, avoid these sites during tick season.
    • If you live in known tick territory, you may even get a tick bite in your own backyard! Decrease this risk by creating a tick-free zone around your house by keeping your lawn mowed, eliminating rodent habitats (wood or rock piles) around your house, and placing wood chips between your lawn and tall grasses or woods.

After coming back inside

  • Perform a tick check which includes botha visual and physical inspection of your entire body, as well as your gear and pets. Because ticks take several hours to settle and begin feeding, you have time to detect and remove them. You tend to not feel ticks because their saliva has histamine suppression and analgesic effects. Ticks like warm, moist and dark areas but can latch anywhere.
    • Examine your scalp, ears, underarms, in and around the belly button, around the waist, groin/pubic area, buttocks and behind your knees.
    • If camping, perform tick checks daily on humans AND pets, making sure to examine children at least twice daily. Again, pay special attention to the head and neck and don’t forget to check clothing for crawling ticks.
    • Shower and wash your clothes after returning home from the outdoors.

If you or a family member get bit by a tick: DO NOT PANIC, and DO NOT immediately rush to the emergency room! If the tick has been attached for less than a day, the chance of the tick transmitting one of these diseases is low. Removing ticks can be tricky, as they use their mouthparts to firmly attach to the skin.

Best method for tick removal -> remove as quickly as possible!

1. Grasp the tick with fine tipped tweezers as close to the skin as possible. If tweezers are not available, use a rubber gloved hand or place tissue or thin plastic over the tick before removing it to avoid possible transmission of disease.

2. Pull tick SLOWLY and with STEADY PRESSURE STRAIGHT away from the skin

  • DO NOT:
    • Crush, puncture, twist or jerk the tick as you remove it. This may increase risk of the tick regurgitating infected body fluids into the skin or leaving mouthparts in skin

3. After the tick is removed, disinfectant the attachment site on skin and WASH YOUR HANDS. Dispose of the live tick by placing in a sealed bag/container and submersing it in alcohol, then wrapping it tightly and crushing it in duct tape, OR flushing it down the toilet.

  • DO NOT:
    • crush the tick in your fingers
    • try to suffocate the tick still on the person by covering it with petroleum jelly OR touching it with a hot match to suffocate -> these methods can cause the tick to burst and INCREASE time the tick is attached, as well as making the tick more difficult to grasp

Remember: the goal is to remove the tick quickly from the host as opposed to waiting for it to detach on its own.

If you remove the tick and are worried, you can always put the tick in a sealed container with alcohol and bring the dead tick to your medical provider.

If you develop a rash or flu-like symptoms (fever, fatigue, body aches, headache) within several weeks of removing tick, see your medical provider and tell him/her about the recent tick bite, when it occurred and where you acquired the tick.

Remember: These diseases are very treatable if caught early enough!

Graphic taken from https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/pdfs/FS_TickBite-508.pdf

Stay tuned for next month’s explanation of the tick life cycle and tick-borne diseases in the high country!

References

1. Colorado Tick and Tick Born Diseases fact sheet. https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/insects/colorado-ticks-and-tick-borne-diseases-5-593/ Accessed on 8/8/20

2. Peterson J., Robinson Howe. P. Lyme Disease: An Uptick in Cases for 2017. Wilderness Medicine Magazine: https://www.wms.org/magazine/1213/Lyme-Disease. Accessed 8/8/20

3. Do’s and Don’t’s of Tick Time: https://awls.org/wilderness-medicine-case-studies/dos-and-donts-of-tick-time/ Accessed 8/8/20

Laurie Pinkerton is a 3rd year Physician Assistant Student studying at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Originally from Northern, VA, she graduated from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA with a degree in Biology in 2014. She moved to Keystone to live that ski life and stayed for 2 years, working as a pharmacy tech at Prescription Alternatives and as a medical assistant at Summit Cardiology. Prior to starting PA school, she moved to Idaho where she learned about organic farming and alternative medicine.  She has loved every second of being back in Summit County and learning here at Ebert Family Practice. She looks forward to practicing Integrative Medicine in the near future.

WMS Blog Entry No. 3: Pre-acclimatization, A Synopsis of Dr. Peter Hackett’s Lecture

What is pre-acclimatization? It is a process of adjusting to a new climate, usually higher elevation, reducing hypoxemia in high altitude settings in turn saving time, money, and most importantly, reducing altitude sickness. It can also allow for better sleep/comfort and physiological/cognitive performance at a high altitude. Acclimatization is a time-dependent process as over 5,000 genes are impacted by a large shift in elevation affecting ventilation, plasma volume, and hemoglobin mass, among other things. The whole process is not completely understood, but one key element is the hypoxic ventilatory response (HVR). HVR is activated by the aortic artery baroreceptors, as oxygen in the blood reduces it triggers an increase in respiration. This happens immediately as you ascend in altitude and maximizes at 7-14 days. Arterial oxygen increases by an increase in ventilation/saturation and also by dropping plasma volume, increasing hemoglobin concentration, and then later on, increasing overall Hgb production which in theory, overall decreases altitude sickness.

So how can you prepare yourself or pre-acclimatize?

Some of the better-known methods are spending time at higher altitudes prior to your destination, using a hyperbaric or normobaric chamber, blood doping, hypoxic exercise training, and a few pharmaceutical methods. All of these are options, but the key question is, which ones truly work?

Pre-acclimatization with actual altitude is the most useful. Generally speaking, you would pick your maximum sleeping altitude at your destination and slowly work your way towards that altitude. You pick an ascent profile which preferably would be spread over a week or more to be most useful. This pre-acclimatization should be completed no more than 1-2 weeks prior to your destination so that any pre-acclimatization gained doesn’t wane prior to your trip.

Simulated altitude is another option which includes hypoxic tents, hypoxic rooms/homes, hypoxic exercise chambers, and hypoxic masks. Out of these four, hypoxic tents or hypoxic rooms/homes, where exposure is over a long duration, are by far the most effective. Hypoxic masks and exercise chambers are not very effective as their short duration does not give the body enough time to make the proper adjustments and although might be beneficial in respiratory muscle training/performance, do little in the way of pre-acclimatizing your body. Studies show more benefit from hypobaric hypoxia training vs normobaric hypoxia training but keep in mind studies are very limited and warrant much further research. Overall, simulated altitude minimum requirements look to be somewhere in the range of 1 week of exposure, 7 hours per day, and a minimum effective altitude of 2200-2500 m and being no more than 1500-2000 m below your target sleeping altitude. Shorter term protocols can attenuate altitude sickness but not the incidence some studies suggest. As to why hypobaric methods are more effective than normobaric methods, no one really knows yet and more research is needed.

Changing your living destination to something at a much higher elevation and exposure over years or moderate altitude residence (MAR), is the most effective method according to some studies, but this is far from feasible for most. There are studies to show epigenetic changes for those who relocate to higher elevations for long periods and these appear to be much less than those who have genetically adapted to higher elevation over generations but still more effective than the previous mentioned short-term options.

Hikers often camp at the Angel of Shavano campground before ascending Mt. Shavano, one of Colorado’s famed fourteeners.

Oxygen saturation is maximal at 11 days of exposure to a specific elevation. Diamox (acetazolamide) increases ventilation and can help with acclimatization but there isn’t much data on how using this pharmaceutical compares to other methods mentioned. World-renowned high altitude expert and pioneerDr. Peter Hackett theorizes that it may fall just short of MAR, but again, more research is needed. Short-term altitude exposure shows benefits at 7 days but a longer exposure such as 15 days has been shown to be much more beneficial.

Blood doping with EPO can be somewhat effective over a 4+ week treatment and can potentially decrease AMS and potentially increase exercise performance but the data is limited and conflicting on this. Also, it appears that it is only effective up to 4,300 m but not beyond that as arterial oxygen content is not the determining factor for sleep and cognition performance at high altitudes but rather oxygen delivery which is affected by hematocrit and viscosity of blood.

Hypoxia inducible factor (HIF) is a regulatory factor in cells that respond to a reduction in oxygen, causing changes in about 5000 different genes to help the body adjust to meet oxygen requirements. It is suggested that we could pharmaceutically activate this factor prior to destination in order to acclimatize the patient allowing for less complications and better results at higher elevations. Currently there are some drugs in trials but nothing specifically FDA approved.

Overall, data and studies are limited but the most effective current pre-acclimatization method is long-term altitude training (real or simulated). If possible, plan your ascent trip to be slow and steady to obtain best results with the least amount of complication.

Joel Miller is currently preparing to graduate from Red Rocks Community College’s reputable Physician Assistant program this Fall. He has been a resident of Colorado for four years where he has immensely enjoyed the outdoors camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, and exploring Colorado’s wide variety of breweries.

COVID-19 Update: A Look at How the World’s Highest Altitude Populations Have Been Affected

As the gateway to Machu Picchu, the city of Cusco, Peru attracts over 3 million tourists from all around the globe each year. With this many people passing through the city, you can imagine why local residents feared the worst when the COVID-19 outbreak began. However, out of a population of approximately 429,000 people, the city has only four COVID-19 related deaths – three tourists who traveled to the area and one native with previous risk factors.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, brings 3 million tourists from around the world to the Cusco region of Peru every year.

One death out of 196 confirmed cases for the city makes for a remarkably low fatality rate of 0.5% for the native population. Peru as a whole has a fatality rate closer to 3% with over 6,000 deaths, making it one of Latin America’s most affected countries. Many believe the fatality rate to be even higher as testing has not become widely available in the country.

To understand why Cusco is such an outlier when compared to the rest of the country, there are several factors to take into consideration. One of those factors that researchers haven’t quite been able to figure out, but believe plays a role, is altitude. The Cusco region of Peru sits at 11,152 ft elevation compared to the capital city of Lima that sits at only 512 ft elevation.

Research comparing the high-altitude regions of Tibet, Bolivia, and Ecuador has revealed similar trends. A study completed April 22, 2020 and published in the June 2020 scientific journal “Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology” indicates that populations living above 9,842 feet elevation reported significantly lower levels of COVID-19 cases than populations living at lower elevations. The research showed the infection rates in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia were one third the infection rates the rest of Bolivia, and the infection rates in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador were one fourth of the rest of Ecuador. In both Bolivia and Ecuador, the areas with the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases were located at an elevation close to sea level.

At an elevation of 11,942 ft, La Paz, Bolivia is the highest capital city in the world.

Why populations living at higher altitudes are experiencing lower infection rates is still not well understood, but there are a few theories at play. It is hypothesized that people living at altitude are able to live in a state of chronic hypoxia, or a state of chronically low oxygen in the blood. Hypoxia is one of the conditions caused by COVID-19, and if a person’s body is already used to low levels of oxygen, their symptoms may not be as severe. There are other environmental considerations at altitude that may shorten the life-span of the COVID-19 virus, including high levels of UV radiation that can kill the virus, low barometric pressure that does not support the weight of the aerosolized droplets that the virus lives in, and dry thin air that does not support the transmission of aerosolized droplets.

However, as intriguing as the effect of altitude on COVID-19 statistics is, it is important to note that there are several other proven factors that come into play when looking at these populations. First, most high-altitude towns and cities tend to be rural. When population density per square mile drops, the rate of transmission of infectious diseases also drops – rural settlements allow for natural social distancing. Second, populations living at higher altitudes have lower rates of obesity and generally have better overall health. Living at high altitude causes a reduction in the hormones that signal hunger, leading to consumption of fewer calories. Additionally, completely normal daily activities in a state of chronic hypoxia due to low levels of available oxygen in the air raises the body’s resting metabolic rate, leading to burning more calories. The healthier a person is prior to contracting an illness, the more likely their body is to be able to fight it off successfully.

Research regarding how altitude affects COVID-19 transmission, infection, and recovery rates is ongoing. It may be too soon to tell exactly why or how altitude comes in to play, but early findings are suggesting that now is a great time to be a resident of the great Rocky Mountains – but then again, when is it not?

References

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/coronavirus-andes-peru-ecuador-bolivia-tibet-high-altitude/2020/05/31/0b2fbf98-a10d-11ea-be06-af5514ee0385_story.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7207123/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7175867/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5094724/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machu_Picchu#/media/File:80_-_Machu_Picchu_-_Juin_2009_-_edit.2.jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machu_Picchu#/media/File:80_-_Machu_Picchu_-_Juin_2009_-_edit.2.jpg

Megan Schiers is a 3rd year Physician Assistant student studying at Midwestern University in Glendale, AZ. She graduated from Idaho State University in Pocatello, ID with a Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene and worked as a dental hygienist in Strasburg, CO for two years prior to starting PA school. She is passionate about increasing access to healthcare in rural areas and hopes to specialize in emergency medicine or cardiothoracic surgery following graduation this fall. During her six weeks in Frisco, CO, she has enjoyed hiking in the beautiful mountains, camping at Camp Hale Memorial, visiting Maroon Bells, and checking out Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

COVID in Colorado Update: Reasons high altitude residents may be less susceptible

Last week we were privileged to have a Zoom discussion with two high altitude experts from the Instituto Pulmonar Y Patologia de la Altura (IPPA) founded in La Paz,  Bolivia in 1970. Dr Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja and Dr. Natalia Zubieta-DeUrioste answered our questions about their recently published article, Does the Pathogenesis of SAR-CoV-2 Virus Decrease at High Altitude?. They and the seven  coauthors presented data comparing COVID cases in high altitude areas of China, Bolivia and Ecuador showing a marked reduction in numbers compared to low altitude areas in the same countries, with dramatic, colorful topographic maps.

Drs. Zubieta-Calleja and Zubieta-DeUrioste and their colleagues theorized four reasons why altitudes above 2500 m could reduce the severity of the corona virus. (Note: Frisco, CO is at 2800 m, Vail 2500 m). As described in their previous paper published in March, the intense UV radiation at altitude as well as the dry environment likely reduce the viability of the virus in the air and on surfaces.

Dr. Zubieta-Calleja on a Zoom chat with Dr. Chris explaining a chart comparing UV exposure in La Paz, Bolivia (top line) and Copenhagen, Denmark (bottom line).
Dr. Chris with Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja and other altitude experts from the Hypoxia Conference in La Paz on the Camino Chacaltaya, which reaches an elevation of 17,785’/5421 m.

The low barometric pressure causes air particles to be spaced more widely, which would also decrease the viral particles inspired with each breath, reducing the severity and frequency of infections.

Furthermore, residents accustomed to chronic hypoxia may express reduced levels of angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) in their lungs and other tissues. This enzyme has been found to be the entry path for the corona virus into cells where it replicates. Finally, the normal adaptation and acclimatization of populations with prolonged residence above 2500 meters may reduce the severity of the disease in individuals, and reduce mortality. This includes increased ventilation, improved arterial oxygen transport, and higher tissue oxygenation mediated by increased red blood cells produced under the influence of erythropoietin, which could be explored as a possible therapy.

Dr. Zubieta-Calleja with statistics reflecting the number of COVID-19 infections at different elevations in Bolivia. Note the most infections occur at a lower elevation.

As we stated in our interview quoted in the Summit Daily News March 17th, none of these factors can be relied upon to protect every individual. Therefore it is important to continue frequent hand washing, wearing masks, social distancing, and avoid touching your face.

COVID in the Mountains: What are the Risky Situations to Avoid as We Start Leaving Our Homes?

We are on the back slope of the epidemic, according to University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Professor of Biology Erin S. Bromage, Ph.D. He explains what to expect and where not to go in an article this week which was cited in the New York Times: The Risks-Know Them-Avoid Them. The bad news is that the back slope can have as many deaths as the upslope.

The good news is that you don’t get COVID outdoors, as long as you are not standing close to someone who might have the virus for a period of time, perhaps over ten minutes. Bromage reviews a series of epidemiologic studies tracing the spread of the disease in situations including standing outside talking to someone (one case), church choir practice (45 of 60 infected, 2 died), indoor sports, specifically a curling tournament in Canada where 24 of 72 attendees became ill, birthday parties and funerals (high rate of infection and many deaths related to hugging, kissing and sharing food), grocery stores (safe for shoppers but employees get infected), and restaurants (50% infection rate after sharing a meal with nine at the table). He also reported details about the spread of disease at meat packing plants, a call center and a medical conference.

The risk of infection increases with exposure to a larger number of virus particles over a longer period of time in a smaller space with poor air flow. This is why shopping and outdoor activities are not likely to be dangerous. Breathing releases a small number of virus, between 50-5000 droplets per breath. Talking expels more and  singing is definitely a means of spreading virus. A single cough releases 3000 droplets traveling 50 miles per hour, mostly falling rapidly to the ground. In contrast a sneeze may release 30,000 droplets at 200 MPH, many of which are smaller and stay in the air longer.

Dr. Bromage writes that 44% of infections come from people who have no symptoms at the time.  The virus can be shed up to five days before a person becomes ill. Most people contract COVID from a family member who brings it home. Children are three times less likely to become ill but three times more likely to spread the virus.

I wondered if the lower barometric pressure at altitude could cause viral particles to be less compact. I called Peter Hackett, MD of the Hypoxia Institute in Telluride and he agreed that theoretically the less dense air would not carry as many particles. We also discussed antibody tests, which are still experimental, not recommended and difficult to interpret. The population screened in Telluride showed a 0.5% positive rate, but when a disease has a low prevalence there are more false positives. They did blood tests on some 5,000 people early in the outbreak. They were not able to repeat the serology due to staffing problems at the lab where many technicians contracted the illness.

My advice is to wear masks anytime you are out of the house, except if you are biking, hiking, running where the viral particles will be dissipated rapidly. Wearing a mask during these activities is still a kind gesture  to reduce the anxiety of others. Continue with frequent hand washing, avoid touching your face, practice social distancing, and when the churches reopen we should hum instead of sing.

COVID-19 Update: Accordion Theory and Preparing for Next Steps

Today, I am going to share news gleaned from meetings and publications that address the importance of preventive care, returning to daycare, pulse oximetry as a screening tool for COVID, and the Accordion Theory.

Every Thursday the Children’s Hospital of Colorado presents a panel of experts with updates and answers to questions.

“Your offices are the safest place in the country,” they proclaimed. With social distancing many parents and patients are delaying routine care which has led to the largest drop in vaccination rates in 50 years. This could result in outbreaks of measles, whooping cough, pneumococcal and other infections. With the loss of revenue, small clinics may go out of business, and large clinics and hospitals are laying off workers by the hundreds. If there is a large outbreak of preventable disease, on top of a resurgence of COVID, there could be a devastating shortage of providers to care for the victims. Now is the time to call your clinic and set up appointments for check ups and vaccines. If you don’t feel safe yet you can do a Telehealth visit initially and schedule the vaccines and hands-on portion of the exam in a month.

Another reason not to delay preventive care is the increase in stress, isolation, and anxiety which can cause serious depression. We had a tragic teen suicide in the county this month. Students from middle school through college should be seen annually for mental and physical health screening as well as vaccines. One mother told me that the depression screening done at our office “saved my daughter’s life.”

More daycares are opening soon. Parents are asking me whether to send their child back. These facilities follow strict public health guidelines to prevent infection. Children are not likely to be affected by COVID. Any child with symptoms should be tested. Enrollment should be diminished due to parents preferring to keep their child at home.  However, if there is a high risk family member, I advise not to return to daycare yet.

School age children should be limited to playing with friends and family members who have been part of their social circle during the last two months. To borrow a slogan from the AIDS campaign, “KNOW YOUR NETWORK”.  This is not the time to expand friendships. There will be no team sports this summer. Children should play outside and not share toys or balls.

An emergency physician in New York, Richard Levitan, published an editorial in the NY Times on April 20 advocating the use of pulse oximeters to screen for COVID. Citing the many patients with low oxygen levels and abnormal x-rays who did not complain of trouble breathing, the delay in obtaining results and inaccuracy of the COVID testing, he sees the simple pulse oximeter as a source of immediate information as to who needs medical attention. I’ve been speaking and writing about this for weeks.

Finally, one of the panelists at Children’s mentioned the accordion phenomenon. As we reduce social distancing restrictions and open commerce and travel, there will inevitably be more cases of COVID. It is likely that restrictions will be imposed again, and this may occur in cycles during the next year(s). We may be able to decrease future shutdowns by wearing masks and gloves when we go out, using hand sanitizer, soap and water, not touching our face, covering our coughs and sneezes, and limiting exposure to large groups of people. I hope all these will be permanent behavior changes except the masks and the large groups (I love the Lake Dillon Amphitheater and the BBQ challenge).

Take care, stay engaged, and have another safe week!

COVID-19: Where Are We At Now?

A panel of experts at the University of Colorado School of Medicine had some good news this morning: we may have passed our peak here in Colorado.

Of the 8,675 cases there are 374 deaths. Less than 2% of those with the illness are under age 18, compared to the population of 22% children. This week there are only 4 children admitted to Children’s hospital with COVID-19, two in the ICU. There is a leveling-off of patients presenting to the hospitals and less ICU admissions.

So social distancing has flattened the curve and no hospitals were overextended or lacked ventilators. The initial R naught (the number of people infected from one individual) of each infected person spreading to 4 is now down to 1.5. A study from Singapore showed that 7% of cases came from presymptomatic persons. The infection can be transmitted 2 to 3 days before symptoms show. Of 121 healthcare workers exposed 35% developed symptoms but only 2.5% tested positive.

Our own experience with testing has been equally frustrating. The virus can be present for weeks but usually rapidly declines after 7 days. The PCR test (polymerase chain reaction test – the standard nasal swab being conducted to test for Corona virus) is said to be 75% accurate in detecting viral RNA. Even patients we’ve tested during the first 4 days of typical symptoms have been negative. Other viruses identified at Children’s Hospital in the last month include rhinovirus, adenovirus, enterovirus and human metapneumovirus, which can all cause fevers and respiratory illnesses.

However, many people we are treating have the unusual symptoms and course that seems unique to COVID. Not all have fever. They experience chills, fatigue, sore throat, then improve. A day later they are having chest tightness, trouble breathing, making it difficult to talk or walk, and upper abdominal pain. They feel worse at night and better in the morning. Symptoms can last for weeks. Lung specialists describe several different effects the virus can have. ARDS (adult respiratory distress syndrome) is a diffuse loss of protective protein that causes the air sacs to collapse. The pulmonary disease in the second week is described as a cytokine storm, where the immune system overreacts and damages the lungs.

Testing is less accurate when the prevalence of a disease is low. In Colorado 1.4% have been affected, in comparison with Wuhan where 5-10% were. Experts and individuals are waiting for antibody testing to see if they are immune and if so for how long. Immunity in similar infections has been shown to last anywhere between 3 weeks and 3 months, as opposed to diseases like measles and chickenpox which confer lifelong immunity.

Pediatricians are seeing few patients in the office these days, which raises the concern for a future epidemic of preventable diseases from a delay in vaccinations. Most clinics, like Ebert Family Clinic, are only seeing healthy patients or those with noninfectious complaints such as eczema and lacerations. Anyone with respiratory symptoms or fever is seen by Telehealth. This is effective because COVID, like most illnesses in the community, is usually mild and self-limited. Antibiotics are rarely indicated. A recent study showed that of several hundred children diagnosed with community-acquired pneumonia, those given antibiotics had the same outcomes at those who were not treated, with 4% of each group needing hospitalization for worsening symptoms.

Telehealth does not allow for auscultation of the heart and lungs (listening with a stethoscope), but the vital signs including oxygen saturation, heart rate and temperature along with the patient’s history usually give the provider enough information to make treatment and testing decisions. A face-to-face video interaction is ideal, protecting the patient and provider from exposure to infection. The expanded use of Telehealth is one of the good outcomes of this pandemic, especially in states like Colorado with far flung rural populations.

 The University of Colorado is doing 3000 telehealth visits daily. Specialists at Children’s are ramping up their services online while accepting the sickest patients in the state for inpatient care. They have the largest number of doctors in Colorado, many of whom are in research and can transfer to frontline and ICU duties. The University does 500 million dollars of sponsored research every year, with over 1000 studies. Many of these are on hold now, but with the capacity to initiate new trials within a week and laboratories adjacent to clinical care sites, CU has been tapped for many COVID-related studies. They are testing several antiviral drugs, including the new product from Gilead laboratories Remdesivir. There are also studies on disease modifying treatments such as steroids to prevent future problems caused by the infection. Other trials focus on sample collecting and processing. Some studies may show results within weeks but others take months or years to determine effect.

The University was one of the first centers to use convalescent plasma to treat COVID. The hope is that antibodies from previously-infected and recovered individuals can be lifesaving for severe cases, although the best timing of such treatment, originally used one hundred years ago in the influenza epidemic, is not yet determined. Plasma donations can be arranged by visiting the UC Health website. Since most people will not need hospitalization, instructions for home care can be found on the CDC website.

Vaccine development will proceed over the next 12 months. Until then, lifting of current social restrictions will depend upon having adequate and accurate testing to find cases early enough to quarantine patients and public health workers to trace contacts. Antibody testing must be done and repeated over months and years to determine susceptibility. Continued use of masks in public and the prohibition of large gatherings may continue for a year.

Backcountry & Avalanche Safety: Insight from Backcountry Athlete Dan Beerman

Another Spring season in Colorado. The ski resorts have closed early per the COVID-19 protocol, along with most other establishments. Even on the normal schedule, most ski resorts would have been closed for the season by now, bringing more people to the backcountry. But this year seems to have seen an upswing in backcountry activity, where many people are going to stay active while limiting exposure to others. Just over a week ago, a team of 20 search and rescue volunteers rescued a 26-year-old man who had fallen hiking on steep terrain around St. Mary’s Glacier, Colorado. Last year, a total of 10 snowmobilers were killed in the backcountry in avalanche slides. Only one was wearing a beacon.

Backcountry and Avalanche Safety resources, thankfully, are growing more plentiful and accessible, and last winter, we published an article on the basics. Earlier this winter, I spoke with backcountry athlete and web development colleague Dan Beerman, whose experience in the backcountry really broadened as a backpacking guide in New Mexico during the summers 12 years ago, followed by a position as a climbing instructor.

Dan Beerman on the Pacific Crest Trail

When I was a backpacking guide, I was on the search and rescue if I didn’t have a crew … We had a radio, so we were the point of contact for finding and doing extraction. That’s when I learned the most and was exposed to the most. I took my Wilderness First Responder course in 2014, and that was through the Wilderness Medical Institute.

Dan’s also a fellow hut tripper, and we’ve been talking about doing one together (when we’re on the other side of the current pandemic). He’s spent the last two New Year’s in huts, backcountry skiing or snowshoeing tours. This past year, he skied Buffalo Mountain’s Silver Couloir, in the Gore Range, and made an attempt at a couloir on Mt. Torrey’s. And there have got to be some good “couloir” puns out there.

Beerman on Buffalo, Summit County, CO.

I have aspirations to do the Colorado trail quickly, but I don’t know if I wanna do that in a competitive way or just recreationally backpack it. It’s hard to balance summer objectives, or climbing objectives vs. winter backcountry goals vs. alpine mountaineering objectives.

And he makes a great point:

In Colorado, your recreation is so close to becoming high-consequence all of the time! If the weather changes from the trailhead, that could be a really big problem.

I’m familiar. Nothing really teaches you as much or as quickly as getting caught in Colorado’s extreme weather patterns.

Avalanche Safety

Dan took an Avalanche Awareness and Safety class through Colorado Mountain School, held up in Rocky Mountain National Park over two field days after two nights of class in Boulder. His main takeaway:

Check an avalanche conditions snow report daily. Observing the snowpack over the season is going to make your confidence on the day of your excursion a lot higher. I’d had no context for why avalanches were happening, where and why it’s dangerous. Having that lens through which to view weather events in terms of avalanche conditions is so valuable. It’s an intuitive thing about paying attention to the weather.

This is my first season getting out at Copper, for example, and they all have that double-black diamond terrain in the back bowls that are labeled ‘EX’ on it. There’s a sign that says, ‘Ski with a partner,’ and I just thought, ‘Oh, shit, that sign should probably be much bigger!’

Beacon, shovel, probe are the mandatory avalanche terrain items — you’re putting other people at risk if you don’t have [them], because even if you observe a slide, you can’t do anything about it. Additionally, if you don’t have a beacon in a slide, others can’t find you. You’re not contributing to a rescue, nor can you be rescued. In Colorado, there’s an increasing awareness for that. I typically will bring that with me all the time, it’s just always in my ski bag. Having some snacks, having some water, those are the kinds of things: you should never not have them.

Beerman in his beacon.

Training

I’ll take the goals of the expedition and plan accordingly. If I’m doing a ski trip, I’ll wanna get out and do hikes with weight or runs where I’m doing elevation several times. I like to do six weeks out, of four weeks of training and two weeks of tapering down.

Nutrition

I tend to be in a constant attempt to gain weight. On the Pacific Crest Trail I tried to gain weight prior, eating a lot of fatty foods, that kind of thing. Jonathan and I came up with this metric: calorie-per-dollar-per-ounce. Lightweight food that’s affordable, easy to ingest, easy to prepare, and you aren’t having to burn a lot to carry that with you to the backcountry.

[On the trail], peanut butter is always a winner. Olive oil is one of the highest calorie-per-ounce [food]. I have literally drank it before, but just add it to everything. I do eat a lot of standard trailmix, it’s easy and accessible. I’m a big fan of pumpkin seed mix or stuff with chocolate in it. I like CLIF bars. I do not like Luna bars because I’ve eaten so many of them. I can’t eat pop tarts anymore because they used to be in the meals that were issued when I was a guide. Snickers bars are a great calorie-per-dollar-per-ounce deal. I eat a Snickers bar or two before bed when I’m sleeping at altitude so my body has calories to stay warm.

I’ll make these mass-gainer complex food supplements. It’s like protein powder, but it also has carbs, like a workout and performance powder. And I would add that to water with coffee, and that would be a breakfast while hiking. There’s a lot of different kinds of powders and mixes you can add, but when you’re in calorie-burning mode, I do recommend this. If you’re hiking 20+ miles in a day or 4000+ feet of elevation in a day, you’re burning greater than 4000 calories, so you really have to eat more than you think you can.

Acclimatization

I wouldn’t say that I had HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) or HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) … Definitely, especially when I was younger … I would travel from 4000′ to 10,000′ in a 24-hour period. I’ve actually had search and rescues where someone was having night-terrors or hallucinations [due to HAPE or HACE]. I was a backountry professional for the Boy Scouts at a camp at 10,800′ (one of the first backcountry camps, in New Mexico). I’ve experienced dizziness, nausea, insomnia, weakness of the knees, elevated heart rate … and I’m a runner, I’m in decent shape. But you should acclimatize before setting out on a trip.

Skiing down the Silver Couloir.

One last piece of advice,

Learn the Leave No Trace principles. We live in a state where impact is so concentrated that the more that everybody knows, the more likely it will be there for the next generation.

Dan and his backpacking, backcountry cohorts keep a blog full of breathtaking landscapes and telling captions on CaptainsofUs.com.

There will be plenty of time to escape to the backcountry again after the risks of COVID-19 have subsided. The current time is a good time to start preparing mentally. Know before you go.

robert-ebert-santos

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.