Setting the Course

Dr. Owen Ellis, a 2019 U.S. Senior Amateur qualifier, helping CGA and some Colorado courses navigate COVID-19 pandemic

By Gary Baines – 5/6/2020

Normally this time of year, Owen Ellis would be playing about three rounds of golf per week. He’d probably tee it up once on a weekday, then maybe at a “barbecue event” or a CGA championship on the weekend.

This year, though, Ellis went about a month without playing at all until getting in a round at his home course, Flatirons in Boulder, on Sunday.

So what was the deal?

As was the case with many people, the novel coronavirus disrupted Ellis’ routine. But in his case, it affected both his work life and leisure activities in a big way.

That comes with the territory when you’re a Medical Director for Perioperative Services at Boulder Community Health — in addition to his work as a private-practice anesthesiologist.

This is the thing you get in your career; everyone gets them at some point,” Dr. Ellis noted when asked why he put playing golf aside for weeks on end. “There I was. I went to medical school, did residency, I’m doing anesthesia. Sometimes it’s hard and you do big, complicated surgeries. But a lot of time you’re not doing big, complicated surgeries. You end your day, you go home and you do this or do that, you play golf and you get into a routine.

“Somewhere in a lot of people’s careers, a big, uprooting thing comes where you have to totally change your thought process, and the thing you’ve got as your career that you’ve locked in gets totally uprooted. Every skill you have that you maybe didn’t use for the last 15 years is suddenly really needed to get ready for something that you’re trained for but nobody actually expects. So from a professional standpoint, this was just ‘Put the golf clubs down for two months because look around the world and see what’s happening. Figure out what it is that you’re supposed to do.’”

And, as it turned out, that has been very fulfilling in a couple of respects for Ellis. First, he played a key role in BCH gearing up its incident command center — planning for a major influx of coronavirus patients that thankfully was far less severe than anticipated (about 40 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized through BCH as of late last week). And in taking on that task, he’s also become a valuable resource for the CGA and others in the Colorado golf community in setting up protocols for courses and organizations to operate safely given the pandemic that took hold in the U.S. starting in the second week of March.

His occupation and proficiency in golf meshed ideally in that regard for Ellis, a 56-year-old who has lived in Boulder County for most of his life. 

Professionally, he’s served as an M.D. since 1998, and under normally circumstances he spends about one-quarter of his work time in the medical director role at Boulder Community Health, with the other three-quarters being his private-practice anesthesiology work. But for four or five weeks in the early spring, he was working about 60 hours a week in his role administering operating rooms for BCH. (Ellis also owns an MBA degree.) He was also part of a clinical committee that set up protocols for an infectious disease “that a community hospital had never seen” and that came up with plans for treating patients.

In his BCH role, Ellis was working closely with infectious-disease doctors who deal with the treatment and management of COVID-19 patients — among other things. That gave Ellis access to some insights about the novel coronavirus from high-level specialists, and he could vet questions through them if necessary.

Golf-wise, Ellis has been a tournament player at the local, state and regional level for decades, having first competed in a CGA championship in 1984 and having played in an estimated 100 in the years since. He qualified and competed in the U.S. Senior Amateur last year and has twice won the senior amateur division at the Rocky Mountain Open.

So when the CGA put together a coronavirus task force to get questions answered and set up golf-related protocol given the pandemic, Ellis was a natural person to contact. Frank Wilkinson, a CGA board member who had received some guidance from Ellis for his workplace, suggested Ellis’ name to CGA executive director Ed Mate, who made the contact. 

Ellis has since participated in a handful of CGA coronavirus task force meetings, the recent Colorado Public Golf Operators Zoom meeting, and a call that is helping the CGA set tournament-specific policies and guidelines. 

“He’s been the star of our coronavirus task force,” said Mate, who added that Dr. Stan Smazal, a radiologist and former CGA board member, has also been helpful in answering questions and providing insight during some task force meetings. 

“What makes (Ellis) so great is he’s really on the front line of the virus through his leadership role at Boulder Community Health. And he’s also an avid golfer and an experienced tournament player. He ‘speaks’ golf. He can think creatively and understand intimately what golf looks like and all the touch points that exist. You’re not trying to explain it; he knows it. That’s what’s made him an incredibly great resource. 

 “The feedback we’ve gotten has been very, very positive. We’re very appreciative of all the time he’s taken — not just to be on those calls, but to also research and get back to us offline with answers to specific questions, etc. So it’s been great. Dr. Ellis and Dr. Smazal have both been great. It’s been a good opportunity to gather information.”

Ellis has served as a doctor since 1998, with his current duties including being a Medical Director for Perioperative Services at Boulder Community Health.

During the Colorado Public Golf Operators meeting, for instance, Ellis concluded his comments with an easy-to-understand summary that could prove useful for those running courses, given the circumstances.

“Unfortunately in the world, common sense seems to be somewhat uncommon,” Ellis said. “But if you recognize that this is a virus that travels in droplets — it’s not a spray like what comes out of an aerosol can — and droplets are heavy and they fall … And they have to get to your face, nose and mouth to infect you; otherwise they can’t. So it becomes relatively easy to use common sense to solve a lot of these things that we went through today.

“If you’re trying to figure out about (utilizing) a driving range, you say, ‘Well it’s a droplet out of a mouth, it can only go 6 feet, it degrades pretty quickly in sunlight, it doesn’t travel as far outside because the air currents make it so it can’t travel that easily, and if I dip something in bleach, it goes away.’ Then suddenly you realize that with just some simple common sense that this is what I’m going to do (as safety protocol).

“I started out by saying we’re not really doing anything different than what we did in 1918 for the influenza pandemic. In the end we will because we’ll get vaccines quicker and we’ll have better treatments. But what we’re doing to mitigate it right now is nothing different than what we did 102 years ago. And it worked then and it’s just common sense. So if everybody just think through what they’re doing and use common sense in ‘how do we keep people far enough apart, how do we make sure we’re not touching things and then immediately touching our face?’, everybody can figure these things out fairly easy for their own operations, I would think.”

In essence, most of the safety protocols involving golf revolve around proper social distancing, enhanced sanitation, significantly limiting common touch points if possible, and discouraging congregating and gatherings of more than 10 people when social distancing is impractical.

But given the role he’s been playing at BCH — and as guy very, very familiar with golf — Ellis has been a valuable resource for the CGA.

“Normally, an anesthesiologist calling in to weigh in on an infectious disease would be some guy reading the newspaper and giving his opinion on it, which, quite frankly, would be worth very little,” Ellis said. “But because I was in meetings all day on clinical committees and constantly talking with our infectious-disease doctors who were guiding us and telling us everything they knew and what the policies were and how we should deal with everything, I got a very good education about what we were dealing with, how to think of it and what really mattered and what didn’t matter. My information was coming from a very good group of infectious-disease doctors in Boulder and so I got a crash course in what really happens with a respiratory illness and what this one is like, and what’s real and what’s not real out of the media and how do we look at articles in our own journals. That’s why I felt comfortable being able to give some advice to the Colorado Golf Association. It’s also helpful because, if I get a question I don’t know the answer to, I can get an expert answer very quickly.”

Ellis has also been very willing help out the CGA. 

“Honestly, the CGA and those guys there have done so much over the years to improve my life,” he said. “I worked at Flatirons (Golf Course) from when I was 19 until I was 26 — in summers during medical school — so I’ve been (around) the golf industry in Colorado forever. A chance to use a skill that they haven’t needed in that whole time — and, knock on wood, will never need again in my golf career … The ability to add that back in a way that was not just the medical knowledge, but the medical knowledge combined with somebody who has worked in the golf industry and been around golf for a long time. You ask an I.D. doc, ‘Should we touch the pins or not touch the pins?’ (The answer) might be, ‘What do you mean the pins?’ For me to sort of combine the two and give back some information, it’s one period of time in my entire golf career where I have something to contribute, and I was more than happy to do that.”

In fact, Ellis may also go on to assist a prominent Colorado golf facility — one that has yet to reopen — with its coronavirus protocol. 

“I’m happy to do that because I think there’s a lot of stuff being done by the county health departments that they’re doing as sort of a blanket across all of their rec departments or parks and rec,” Ellis said. “The definition of social distancing is 200 people on 200 acres, so you have to then just get thoughtful about, where does it constrict? It constricts at the pro shop; how do you get around that? It constricts on the range, but you’re outside and if your 6 feet from someone outside, you could get infected, but honestly it’s going to be much more dangerous driving home. So that’s the goal.

“You can’t make it zero risk. You get it to the point it’s low risk and people can enjoy themselves. So fortunately I’ve been able to provide a lot of boots on the ground advice about, ‘No you don’t have to close your driving range, you just move the markers 2 feet farther apart.’ It was nice to be able to add that level of, ‘let’s think about what we’re really doing.’”

Ellis doesn’t have any illusions that he — or his fellow physicians — have all the answers regarding dealing with this virus. “I’m giving you the best information we have at the time and I’m getting it vetted by very smart people whose entire career has been infectious disease, but some of it is probably (going to eventually be shown to be) wrong,” he said.

But his hope is that if the vetted policies are utilized with a great deal of uniformity by golf facilities around the state, golfers will be able to play their game while government officials feel comfortable with the safety protocols.

“I’d like to get the CGA in a position that they can get a semi-evidenced based idea about how every golf course ought to run, (information) that the golf courses can take to the county health departments, so that the county health departments from across the state can be presented with the same idea and the golf courses do everything the same way,” Ellis said. “Then we’ll have the best chance of getting as close to real golf as possible while still being safe. Because what we’re doing now, some of it is just crazy. … Yeah, somebody will probably pass coronavirus to somebody else on a golf course in the state. That’s going to be OK because they won’t pass it to 15 people.

“Most of the golf professionals I know who are running a business have a lot of common sense. If we can just arm our golf professionals with some basic knowledge about you need to be 6 feet away, you shouldn’t stay close together inside. If you’re outside and it’s sunny, it’s a whole hell of a lot safer. It’s a little droplet of water that has to get from here to here to here to here. I think most of our golf professionals, frankly, will do a much better job of managing that sort of concept about minimizing the risk than a lot of these people who are allegedly much more educated.

“The goal of all this is to get the information out there.”