Operational Changes for COVID-19
Update on Vaccination Policy
October 16, 2021
On October 1, 2021, American Alpine Institute began requiring that all participants on AAI trips be fully vaccinated. Vaccination has been a condition of employment for all Institute employees since May 1, 2021.
This policy change follows announcements by public health authorities that the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is significantly more transmissible than earlier strains, is spreading rapidly worldwide, and is increasing the risks of infection, severe illness, and death in all populations.
In the coming weeks, the new vaccination policy will be spelled out in greater detail. Please check this page for more information.
Reopening and Continuous Improvement
Updated October 16, 2021
As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to take lives and endanger the health and economic vitality of the planet, American Alpine Institute has worked hard to find ways in which we can continue to pursue the mountain recreation we love while minimizing the risk of spreading the infection. Like society’s larger effort to grapple with the disease, this is a work in progress. By following the latest news and recommendations for best practices from the CDC and other public health authorities, we have adapted our operations to the changing needs of the moment, keeping our participants and employees as safe as possible, arresting avoidable spread of the disease, and continuing to lead trips into the mountains that build climbing skills and rejuvenate the spirit.
Now, with the arrival of vaccines and an ever-greater share of the population enjoying the benefits of their protection, AAI is gradually resuming normal operations, while maintaining compliance with good public health practices and remaining vigilant for signs of new risks from variant strains of the virus.
During the “lockdown” phase of COVID control measures in the spring of 2020, we worked with our office and shop staff, guides, and medical advisers to re-examine every aspect of our operations in light of the “new normal” in which we all now live, producing in the end twenty-some odd pages of concrete instructions and guidelines dictating how we will operate in every situation we might encounter. From the rental department in the basement of our Equipment Shop to belay ledges high in Washington Pass, and from our registration form to our guides’ personal notebooks, we’ve analyzed patterns of activity, contact, and communication, looking for ways to stop the spread of the virus.
Throughout this intensive process, we’ve been guided by a few fundamental rules and principles. Some of them are concrete and lead to clear directives; others are more abstract, and help us see the forest through the trees. Taken together, we believe they constitute a workable strategy to enable us to keep doing the work we love.
The Prime Directive: Stay Home if You Have Symptoms – and Get Vaccinated
Because of the nature of COVID-19, it’s hard to know for sure if you have it. We can’t get a COVID-19 test every day, but one thing we can do is listen to our bodies and pay attention – and get tested – when we feel unwell. In the pre-COVID era, many of us went out to work or play in the mountains despite having cold symptoms and that nagging sense that we might be getting sick. In the COVID era, that kind of wishful thinking is finished. It could cost lives.
- Vaccination Policy: Vaccination is required for participation in all trips beginning October 1, 2021 and thereafter. Participants will be asked to provide documentation of vaccination to their guides upon arrival. For staff, vaccination for COVID has been a condition of employment at AAI since May 1, 2021.
- Sickness policy: Our policy is that unvaccinated persons will not be allowed to work at AAI or participate in an AAI trip if they have any COVID symptoms. The standard we use is that even a single, distinct principal symptom, reported with confidence and not obviously explained by other causes, justifies replacement of staff or postponement of that client’s trip. Managers and guides will, as always, exercise their judgment, but they are directed to err on the side of caution.
- COVID-19 testing: All our staff underwent proactive testing for current infection on state-of-the-art PCR equipment prior to or during the first two weeks of their active season in 2020. Thereafter, we have ordered ad hoc testing in all cases in which staff reported symptoms or possible exposure.
- New policies on trip postponement and employee sick time encourage conscientiousness and compliance on the part of both participants and staff.
- Pre-Trip COVID Screening: We’ve added screening questions to our registration form to help us determine if participants will present a risk of bringing COVID-19 to their trip, to inform them of our vaccination requirement, and to collect information regarding their vaccination status.
- First Day COVID Screening: In addition to requiring proof of full vaccination prior to departure, we additionally conduct a health screening on the first day of each program, thoroughly surveying participants about their contact history and any possible symptoms.
- Daily AM/PM COVID Health Checks, conducted at least once each day in either morning or evening, provide a framework in which participants and guides can pause and quickly self-evaluate for symptoms, noting trends and other diagnostic signs.
- Acknowledgement of Additional Risks and Responsibilities: A new addendum to our regular waiver outlines our new operating practices and helps ensure that all participants share the same understanding of our mutual responsibilities.
Principles of Mutual Protection: Requirements for Staff and Participants
The biggest improvements in public health have often come about from simple changes in habits, not from new scientific innovations or technology. Most major advances have come from small adjustments to reflexive behavior like boiling water before drinking, emptying standing water, trapping rodents, and washing hands. COVID-19 is no different. Even now that vaccines are available, stemming the spread of variant strains, especially among those who are still unvaccinated, will boil down to a few simple measures.
1. Limit Personal Contacts – Number, Time, and Proximity
This principle is universally understood to be the linchpin of all efforts to tackle the COVID pandemic worldwide – the foundation of “lockdowns”, but also of more modest forms of contact reduction, such as limiting business hours and room capacity.
When you’re standing near a person with an infection – an infection of which that person may be unaware, even when they’re highly contagious – the simple acts of speaking and breathing the same air can transfer small amounts of virus through minuscule droplets suspended in the air (aerosols). Small amounts, transferred over time, can add up to an infectious “dose” that overwhelms the immune system’s first line of defense. But by the same token, limiting the possible intake of individual virus particles at every opportunity limits that total dose and can help you avoid infection.
Each minute of close contact with a new person presents a new risk of infection – a new spin of the roulette wheel, so to speak. So the number of people you see affects your chances of infection, as well as how close you come to them and how long you spend in their company.
At AAI, we are limiting contact in many ways, including:
- Reduced Group Size and Ratios: During initial reopening under Washington's Phase 2 guidelines, maximum group size was reduced to five persons total, including participants and guides, for a maximum ratio of 4:1. Update for 2021-2022: Our normal group sizes and ratios are in effect, barring a renewed rise in case counts and/or new government-imposed limits.
- Social distancing: We'll maintain at least six feet of distance in all settings where practicable, with greater tolerance for close contact when all participants are vaccinated.
- New solo rental tents to allow every participant personal sleeping and cooking space. Participants and guides are required to refrain from sharing camping space with others who are not members of their household.
- Company passenger vans: Beginning on June 26, 2021, participants who are vaccinated may ride in company vans on programs for which AAI normally provides transportation. Use of masks will be strongly recommended in the vans. On occasional trips, guides may spot-check air exchange in the vans using a carbon dioxide monitor.
- Personal vehicle use: Participants who are unvaccinated will be asked to volunteer to drive themselves in their own personal vehicles to campgrounds and trailheads.
- Changes to traffic patterns: During the initial lockdown, we conducted time-and-motion studies to determine which areas of our shop and office would see the most incidental contact. Now, with vaccination rates high and cases declining, we have eased most limits on traffic patterns.
- Occupancy signs and traffic control for the bathrooms have been improved to help prevent accidental contact.
2. Keep Air, Hands, and Surfaces Clean
This principle is behind a number of new practices at AAI that are intended to remove virus particles from media of transfer – the air, skin, shared objects, and surfaces – thus reducing the number that could contribute to an infectious dose for any given staff member or trip participant.
- Face-covering requirement: Participants who are unvaccinated are required to wear cloth masks or face coverings at all times when they cannot maintain a six-foot personal distance or when they are in enclosed spaces. For example, climbers sharing a small belay ledge will need to "mask up" upon arrival. The same would be true for a hands-on instructional session, such as for snow-anchor construction. Some climbing situations will allow sufficient social distancing to obviate mask use, but many will not.
- High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters have been installed in common areas of the office and Equipment Shop to limit the danger of aerosol transmission from a sick occupant to a subsequent user, and cleaning schedules have been stepped up.
- Hand Sanitizer is now required equipment on all trips. We require each participant to bring adequate quantities to allow use before meals and snack breaks and at various times before touching shared equipment or other items throughout the day. Though contact with surfaces is not the primary mode of transmission for Covid, the use of hand sanitizer has long been recommended to reduce the spread of colds and flu in our expedition programs.
- Rental equipment and vehicles will be cleaned scrupulously after every return. During the early phase of the pandemic, we placed rental gear in a 72-hour quarantine to ensure that any virus particles that remained after cleaning had disintegrated, but research now indicates this procedure is unnecessary.
Risk Mitigation, Not Elimination
Though entailing many changes, both large and small, our risk management approach for COVID-19, at a high level, is much the same as the one we have always used on our climbing trips. Since mountaineering has many inherent risks that cannot be eliminated entirely, our job as guides is to keep track of the risks, limit them as much as possible, and work within the probabilities. We do what we can, within reason, to reduce the hazards in each domain of risk, be it weather conditions, team cohesion, movement errors, or many others. Infectious disease, in the form of COVID-19, has simply become one more domain of risk to be managed – albeit a risk that has greater implications for the wider community. Lessening the probability of accidents and errors in each of these domains lessens them for the whole trip, reduces the cascading effects of chance events, and allows us to proceed with confidence, even if not with perfect certainty.
If you have any questions about our COVID-19 Risk Management Plan, please don’t hesitate to call our office at (360) 671-1505.