National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass canceled because of coronavirus concerns

Maddie Vincent
The Aspen Times
Robert Morrs skis down on the electric tetraski at the National Disabled Veterans winter sports clinic at Snowmass on April 1, 2019.
Aspen Times file photo

This year’s National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, an adaptive recreation and rehabilitation experience for hundreds of veterans that has been held in Snowmass annually for more than 30 years, has been canceled due to concerns of the spreading coronavirus disease, officials confirmed Wednesday.

The decision to cancel the five-day event, which was scheduled to start March 29, was made by top officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and conveyed to the Disabled American Veterans and other event partners late Wednesday afternoon, DAV national communications director Rob Lewis said Wednesday night.

VA officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening, but the agency is set to send out a formal statement Thursday with more information on the decision, Lewis said.

“We understand the decision was based strictly on the welfare of the VA patients,” Lewis said, emphasizing the VA made the decision and his team would be briefed fully Thursday.

The outbreak of the respiratory, flu-like disease COVID-19, caused by a new coronavirus strain SARS-CoV-2, was first detected in China in late December and has now spread to nearly 70 locations internationally including the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Information so far suggests that most cases of COVID-19 have been mild, but a report out of China suggests serious illness occurs in 16% of cases, the CDC states. The CDC says that older people and people with certain underlying health conditions seem to be at a greater risk of serious illness.

There have been 11 U.S. deaths as a result of COVID-19, The New York Times reported Wednesday evening.

In Colorado, there have not been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of the end of Tuesday, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the risk of community spread is low at this time.

Lewis said that the more than 400 VA patients who attend the annual winter sports clinic fall into the at-risk category, experiencing illness or having sustained injury that makes them more susceptible to disease.

“We haven’t received the official information from the VA, but we can say we are going to miss being in Snowmass this year,” Lewis said. “The thought of (the clinic) not happening is like thinking about the sun not rising for us.”

Disabled American Veterans is a national nonprofit charity that supports veterans and a longtime co-sponsor of the clinic.

Locals like Fred Venrick, a longtime member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks fraternal organization in Aspen, echoed Lewis’ thoughts.

While Venrick said he understands why officials decided to cancel this year’s weeklong event, he and his fellow Aspen Elks are devastated.

The winter sports clinic is one of the lodge’s biggest volunteer events of the year and its longest-running effort to give back to veterans. Last year, Elks members helped serve more than 2,600 lunches and worked along other area volunteers for over 4,000 hours to put on the winter sports clinic.

“It’s not a total surprise but the fact that it happened is hard to digest. This is the first time the clinic has been canceled,” Venrick said. “It’s really emotional for us. It’s an event we wait for each year and something we want to do to treat and take care the vets.”

The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic first started in 1987 by the VA with roughly 90 veterans and 20 staff who helped the vets participate in a variety of adaptive activities, according to the clinic website.

In recent years, the clinic has grown to host roughly 400 veterans from across the country and 200 certified adaptive ski instructors annually in Snowmass — featuring a multitude of activities including skiing, rock climbing, snowmobiling, scuba diving and sled hockey — and has become one of the largest and most renowned winter sports clinics for disabled vets of its kind worldwide.

Locally, the clinic has remained a beloved community event for groups like the Aspen Elks and a huge event for the Snowmass Village community. The clinic’s veterans, caretakers and instructors are housed in many village hotel and lodge rooms, boosting the town financially and emotionally, said Rose Abello, director of Snowmass Tourism.

Abello learned of the VA decision late Wednesday and plans to work with marketing and sales stakeholders to see how they can help mitigate the expected economic loss of not hosting the clinic.

“It’s an emotionally important event for us; the whole community gets behind it,” Abello said, noting her department planned to volunteer at the clinic. “It’s such a beautiful and humbling event and we’re certainly sorry to see it go this year, but we respect the decision.”

As far as Karen Koenemann, public health director for Pitkin County, knows, there haven’t been any other large Aspen-Snowmass events that have been canceled as a result of COVID-19 concerns.

Koenemann said her department has received several inquiries from organizations set to host large events wondering if they should do so, but as of Wednesday the county is not at a trigger point to implement any sort of social distancing policy that would keep big events from taking place.

However, she encouraged groups set to host events in the Aspen-Snowmass area to have a plan in place in case there is a COVID-19 outbreak, as well as local residents and businesses.

Koenemann also said county public health officials are facilitating communication around COVID-19 and promoting individualized plans for its spread, including launching a county public health incident management team, but emphasized it is not a “panic situation.”

“I think what we’ll see is each individual organization go through their own plan of action and develop their own trigger points. Different agencies have different risk tolerances around events,” Koenemann said of event planning in Pitkin County.

“This isn’t a time for panicking, it’s a time for preparedness.”

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that COVID-19 was first detected in late December, not in January.

More Like This, Tap A Topic

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.