March 23, 2020 / 6:46 PM / 3 months ago

Doctors seek quarantine for virus-hit Swiss ski hot spot Verbier

VERBIER, Switzerland, March 23 (Reuters) - Swiss doctors in the wealthy ski town of Verbier are calling on authorities to seal it off from the rest of Switzerland, citing a surge in cases of the new coronavirus in recent weeks.

Verbier is a playground for the wealthy including the Danish royal family. Although international tourists have stopped coming due to the closure of ski lifts, visitors from Swiss cities like Geneva continue to weekend there, locals say, risking further spread.

Switzerland -- wedged between badly affected neighbours Italy, France and Germany -- has more than 8,000 cases and has mobilised its army to help with the response.

Swiss RTS radio reported a cluster of 60 infected people in Val de Bagnes in the canton of Valais, which includes Verbier, although the number is thought to represent just a small portion of the total because those who tested positive have been sharing chalets, said local doctor Sabine Popescu.

"People are coming thinking they will be safer in the mountains. Now we must get the idea that this is over. Verbier needs to be in confinement," she told Reuters.

"Very soon there will be no more tests or medicines to treat people and the only way is to halt the rise," she said.

A long winding road connects the resort to the valley below.

Valais canton health director Esther Waeber-Kalbermatten told a local paper she had written to the federal government in Bern to seek guidance, since quarantining a whole region is not allowed in Switzerland although it has happened in Austrian ski resorts.

Daniel Koch, head of the Federal Office of Health's communicable diseases division, told reporters he was in talks with cantonal authorities but no decision has been taken.

Dr. Hicham El Ghaoui said he estimated that 60% of the local population was infected. He thought the first cases were probably imported from Milan, since many of its residents came to Verbier after the Italian city was placed under lockdown last month.

"The reason we are ringing the alarm for authorities is that I don't understand how the Genevans are still coming here for the weekend or chalet owners keep paying for people to take care of their houses," he told Reuters.

"It is a hub that is very, very contaminated and people need to understand," he said, although adding that a quarantine probably came too late.

Popescu said the virus had probably been spread by young, asymptomatic partygoers in the town's many bars and nightclubs.

"How could all these young people who came to party in Verbier imagine they were vectors?" Popescu said.

Writing by Emma Farge; Additional reportinb by Silke Koltrowitz in Zurich and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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