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The pandemic has reached the world’s tallest mountain, prompting concerns for the safety of climbers and locals after multiple people were evacuated from Everest base camp and later tested positive for COVID-19.

Base camp officials at the Himalayan Rescue Association, which operates a government-authorized clinic on Mount Everest, say there have been at least 17 confirmed COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. The tests were done at hospitals in the capital, Kathmandu, where climbers with symptoms were sent for treatment.

But mountaineers in Nepal say the real number is much higher. Social media posts by climbers currently on Mount Everest suggest a spike in the number of people at the base camp with COVID-19 symptoms, raising fears of a serious outbreak.

“More than 30 people have already been evacuated [by air] to Kathmandu, with suspicion of pulmonary edema – later found to be positive for coronavirus,” Polish climber Pawel Michalski wrote in a Facebook post.

The first case at base camp this year was confirmed in April after Norwegian climber Erlend Ness was flown out by helicopter to Kathmandu, where he was hospitalized and later tested positive.

China has even announced that it will set up “a line of separation” at the summit to prevent climbers from the Nepalese side from mingling with those from the Tibetan side.

However, the Nepalese government continues to deny that there is an outbreak in the base camp. “There is no health safety risk at Everest base camp as claimed by some media,” the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation said in a statement.

There are concerns the government is downplaying the severity of an outbreak at the base camp to avoid shutting it down.

Rojita Adhikari, a climber who tested positive after she left the base camp on April 19 and returned to Kathmandu, tweeted: “The Nepal Government is still denying there is a Covid-19 outbreak at Everest base camp, despite emerging evidence … Why is the government hiding the truth? Why are they putting hundreds of climbers at risk?”

An outbreak on Mount Everest would be bad news for Nepal, which relies heavily on tourism and income generated from Everest expeditions. It could not have come at a worse time, as May usually presents a window of good weather for reaching the summit and those of Nepal’s other peaks.

Nepal’s tourism industry suffered a devastating blow last year when the pandemic completely shuttered the climbing and trekking business, costing it millions in lost revenue. To lure back foreign climbers and adventurers, the government granted a record 408 permits to scale Everest this year. The cost of a permit alone is $11,000, and climbers pay as much as $40,000 for an expedition.

But far more than 408 people will be filing through the base camp and up the mountain, given the vast entourage climbers require. Chefs, guides and sherpas accompany each team, which may make it harder to practise physical distancing at the top of the world.

Officials at Everest base camp said there is no testing facility at the clinic. However, some climbers have brought testing kits, which helped them take necessary and timely steps to self-isolate and leave the mountain.

There is also a suspected outbreak at Mount Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh-tallest peak, which is 345 kilometres west of Everest. More than a dozen climbers, including foreigners and Sherpa guides, were airlifted from the mountain’s base camp to Kathmandu after showing symptoms of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Nepal is struggling to contain a countrywide COVID-19 crisis as it faces a devastating second wave, similar to the situation in India, which shares a long, porous border with Nepal.

Open this photo in gallery:

Nepalese paramedics treat a COVID-19 patient outside an emergency ward of a government run hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal, on May 10, 2021.Niranjan Shrestha/The Associated Press

Hospitals are running out of beds and turning patients away due to a shortage of oxygen supplies. COVID-19 wards are at capacity, and ICUs are full. In some hospitals, patients are lying on the floor. Cremations are being carried out in open spaces.

Many fear it is already too late for Nepal to rein in its second wave. The COVID-19 positivity rate in the country is 45 per cent, one of the highest in the world. It reported 9,317 new cases Tuesday – the highest single-day spike since the start of the pandemic – taking the country’s total caseload to 413,111 in a population of 28.61 million.

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