Listen Live

COVID-19 And Altitude Don't Mix...For Those Coming From Lower Elevations, At Least

Apr 6, 2020

Patients on ventilators at Aspen Valley Hospital are transferred to Denver or Grand Junction, which are about 3,000 to 4,000 feet lower.
Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio

Aspen Valley Hospital sends its most critical COVID-19 patients to other hospitals at lower altitude. Doctors say that's partially because treatment is easier outside of Aspen’s thin air.

“We know that people will do better, their lungs will do better, they need slightly less support from ventilators and oxygen support if they are down at a lower elevation,” said Bradley Holmes, a hospitalist at Aspen Valley Hospital.

Holmes said each breath at high elevation contains less oxygen. The body slowly adapts to those conditions, and those who have recently arrived from lower altitudes are most sharply affected.

Any instance of lung disease, whether it be COVID-19 or asthma, is impacted by the lower oxygen quantities at higher altitude.

“In severe cases,” Holmes said, “If somebody has to go on a ventilator, we end up giving more oxygen than we probably would need to down at a lower elevation.”

Aspen Valley Hospital, which sits at about 8,000 feet above sea level, transfers patients who require ventilators to hospitals in Grand Junction and Denver. Those cities are about 3,000 to 4,000 feet lower.

In last week’s Pitkin County community meeting, Dave Ressler, the hospital’s CEO, said two patients have been transferred to lower elevations since the outbreak began.

Holmes said the lower elevation is especially useful when patients are recovering.

“It's going to be a lot easier to get them off the ventilator,” Holmes said. “When that tube comes out and we're not giving them the same oxygen support, they will do better down at a lower elevation.”