Nepal continues deny knowledge of an outbreak of COVID-19 as the Himalayan Rescue Association confirms at least 17 Everest climbers tested positive for coronavirus after being evacuated off the mountain Wednesday.
Base camp officials say they have received reports of 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 from hospitals in Kathmandu, where climbers have been sent from Everest’s basecamp and higher camps to be treated.
The exact number of active COVID-19 cases remains unknown as climbers are not required to undergo regular testing, and Nepal continues to deny there is an outbreak.
Nepal’s economy relies heavily on revenue from Everest, which shut down last year due to the pandemic.
Authorities are mandating that visiting climbers quarantine in Nepal before entering base camp, but the climbing community is concerned about a serious outbreak at the mountain.
The number of COVID-19 cases have increased significantly in Nepal recently, and the country has the highest rate of infection among the countries neighboring India, which has been battling a devastating second-wave.
Officials from Nepal’s Department of Tourism have not commented on the outbreak, but Prem Subedi, the under-secretary at Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, told BBC that the ministry had not known of any active coronavirus cases at base camp.
“None of the Covid cases at Everest base camp have been reported so far to the Ministry of Tourism,” he said.
The Himalayan Rescue Association, which runs a government-authorized medical clinic at Everest’s base camp, told BBC it received confirmation of positive cases in some climbers receiving treatment in Kathmandu.
Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa, an official with the Himalayan Rescue Association confirmed, “We have just received from Kathmandu confirmation of 17 positive cases [in the climbers flown out from Everest].”
He said, “We have now asked expedition teams to first let us known before they fly out their members [to Kathmandu] who fall ill so we known what is going on.”
Dr Prakash Kharel, who also works at the Everest base camp clinic, said the number of people experiencing COVID-like systems rises daily.
“Almost all climbers get a cough here, but we are seeing people with other symptoms, and we are making sure that they stay in isolation,” Dr. Kharel said.
The CIWEC clinic in Kathmandu also confirmed that it had seen COVID-positive climbers come from Everest.“We did have patients come to us from the Everest region who tested positive at our hospital a couple weeks back,” confirmed staff member Astha Pant. “We cannot share how many people or any other information at this time.”
According to the Department of Tourism’s website, the Nepalese government issued 394 Everest climbing permits for this season, as of April 26. That would allow more than 1,500 people to be on the mountain, with the majority of them being support staff.
Officials at the Everest base camp said there are growing concerns about climbers returning from Kathmandu either after Covid treatment or after acclimatization rotation to adjust to the altitude.
“They may have recovered themselves but they may bring the virus along with them as things are getting serious in Kathmandu,” an army official said. “We have therefore recommended that climbers do the rotation acclimatization at places below base camp, instead of going to Kathmandu.”
Mountaineers and officials at the Everest base camp have said the lack of a coronavirus testing facility is a major hurdle as well.
“We had requested a testing facility but the government said they could not give the permission,” Dr Kharel said.
Some of the larger expedition teams brought their own testing kids to Everest’s base camp, which helped them isolate or evacuate in a timely manner.
Himalayan Rescue Association officials said they have just recently received confirmation of 17 positive COVID-19 cases from Everest’s base camp.
“It is unfortunate that we have not been receiving details of the confirmed cases and the identities of the climbers all this time,” said an army official at the base camp. “That would have helped us in contact tracing and containing the spread much earlier. We could have then isolated the climbers who had come in contact with those who tested positive much earlier.”
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