April 22 (UPI) -- Doctors confirmed the first COVID-19 cases at Mount Everest following Nepal's decision to reopen the world's tallest peak to foreign climbers.
Multiple climbers were flown from Everest Base Camp to CIWEC Hospital in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, where they tested positive for the virus, the hospital's medical director, Prativa Pandey, told The New York Times.
"We are taking it up with the health ministry to see what we can do for the safety of climbers and staff up there," Pandey said.
The first positive test on the mountain was reported by Outside magazine on Tuesday when a patient initially thought to be experiencing high-altitude pulmonary edema was evacuated by helicopter and tested positive for COVID-19 at the hospital.
The remainder of the climber's expedition team immediately began quarantining at Base Camp following the positive test.
The government has issued 371 climbing permits, with tourism officials stating the number could increase.
In efforts to prevent the spread, a temporary high-altitude health care unit has been established at the base camp at an elevation of 17,600 feet and climbers are regularly tested for COVID-19.
Masks are also required and officials have said those suspected of being infected would be flown off of the mountain for testing.
Experts, however, have warned that the mountain's high elevation can make an outbreak even more dangerous.
"When you're sitting at Everest Base Camp at 17,600 feet, your immune system gets compromised because of lack of oxygen," said Alan Arnette, Outside magazine's Everest correspondent. "Even a small cut on your finger doesn't heal until you get back down to an oxygen-rich environment. I think the risks are really high and people are taking a gamble if they climb."
Dr. Suraj Shrestha, a Himalayan Rescue Association volunteer, noted that COVID-19 shares symptoms such as cough, loss of appetite and shortness of breath with high-altitude pulmonary edema, causing a "diagnosis dilemma."