Once Again, the Virus Is Being Spread By an Unusual Vector: Skiers

The Mountain States still have little Omicron, except in counties with ski resorts. Maybe this could be the opening that makes vaccine passports acceptable?

Donald G. McNeil Jr.
4 min readJan 8, 2022

Viruses spread through networks — and one of those networks is skiers.

It’s probably too late to do anything about it. But if we’re ever going to get serious about stopping the spread of viruses (as we tried to do by suspending flights from South Africa on Nov. 26), we do need to look for patterns.

And maybe, just maybe, the fact that rich city slickers are spreading this one could be an incentive for the mandate-resistant parts of this country to accept vaccine passports?

Skiers played a role in the initial spread of Covid-19. That’s happening again with the Omicron variant.

Look at The New York Times map of which U.S. counties are being hit hardest by Omicron right now.

It’s easy to follow: the deeper purple the county, the higher the case count per capita. As you would expect from news reports, the whole Northeast except for Maine is deep purple. So is much of the South, and the Rust Belt as far west as Chicago.

There are also major urban hotspots: New Orleans, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Dallas. This is viral spread in the jet age: Thanksgiving-Christmas travel carried the virus from airport to airport.

The Mountain States, however, are fairly pale. They’re still waiting for the Omicron blow.

With one odd exception: in each mountain state, there is at least one county that is deep, deep purple. In Idaho, it’s Blaine County. In Utah, it’s Summit County. In Wyoming, it’s Teton County. In Colorado, it’s Pitkin County. In Montana, it’s Gallatin County. In Oregon, it’s Deschutes County.*

What’s the common denominator? They all contain ski resorts. Those are the homes of Sun Valley, Id.; Park City, Ut.; Jackson Hole, Wy.; Aspen, Co.; Big Sky, Mt. and Mount Bachelor, Ore.

Moreover, some are the same counties that were ravaged in the first Covid-19 wave. In March, 2020, while New York City was getting all the attention, Sun Valley was actually a hotter hotspot. On a per capita basis, its tiny population suffered more illness and death than New York City did. Ski counties in Colorado and Utah were also hit hard.

Skiers also played a role in the initial spread of the virus in Europe. It’s not entirely clear how the virus got from China to the Alps, though there are business connections between Wuhan and the Italian city of Bergamo, Italy’s hardest-hit city, which sits on the edge of the Alps. Once there, the virus spread to ski towns in the Austrian Alps and from there to Germany. Skiers may also have played an early role in its spread from Singapore to France.

Assuming this is true, what to do about it?

The brutalist response would be to do what we did to South Africa: temporarily stop travel to and from ski towns. But that would cost a lot of hard-working Americans their jobs. And it’s politically unthinkable. The complaints by South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, fell on deaf ears in Washington. Complaints from Mountain State governors would not; President Biden needs them.

A better idea would be to do what resort towns in northern Italy have done in order to safely stay open this winter: If you can’t prove you’re vaccinated or have recently recovered from Covid or have recently tested negative for it, stay home.

They use the European Union’s app, which resembles New York’s Excelsior Pass: it displays a QR code that can be quickly scanned. In western Europe, that idea went from unthinkable to accepted late last year, just in time for Omicron. Digital health certificates, aka “vaccine passports” are now common in Europe and Israel as well as in China and Japan.

The Biden administration’s rejection of vaccine passports is one of its signature failures in its Covid-19 response.

After months of hesitation, it ultimately came around to imposing vaccine mandates (which are no doubt saving thousands of lives in this late Delta/early Omicron wave but getting no credit for it, including from the Supreme Court.)

But now this country has no forgery-resistant way for someone to prove they are vaccinated or immune — meaning no way to exclude a potential superspreader. (Yes, a vaccinated person can spread Omicron, but probably for less time and with a lower viral load.)

Which is too bad — because right now the red states could be using those passports to slow the import of the virus into their mountain towns. Outward spread from epicenters is inevitable, whether the virus rode in with skiers headed for Sun Valley or bikers headed to Sturgis. Rural states tend to have fewer hospitals with fewer intensive care beds and fewer options when staff members fall ill, so they will soon have yet another wave of overwhelmed hospitals, as New York City is having now.

When will we learn?

*This one-purple-county trend was very strong in the first week of January. As time passes, cases will spread to next-door counties.



Donald G. McNeil Jr.

New York Times, 1976–2021. Last beat: lead Covid reporter. 2020 Chancellor Award; 2021 NYT team Pulitzer donaldgmcneiljr1954@gmail.com