Up in smoke: Despite fires, cities maintain focus on fighting COVID-19

Smoke from wildfires turned the sky over San Francisco orange on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

San Francisco’s gradual reopening was slowed this week — not due to COVID-19 but because of the wildfires raging south and east of the city.

Days after Mayor London Breed gave a long-awaited OK to outdoor activities such as pool swimming and open-air gym workouts, the sky over the city turned an eerie orange with thick smoke. Now, state and local health authorities once again are recommending that many residents stay indoors, this time to avoid breathing in dangerous particles in the air.

As wildfires consume large swaths of California, Oregon, and Washington state, cities across the Western U.S. are contending with plumes of smoke that come and go with the wind. Although fires are an all-too-familiar concern in cities from San Diego to Seattle, the coincidence of a severe fire season with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is 2020’s latest troubling twist.

Doctors are concerned about compounding impacts on public health. On its own, the particulate matter in wildfire smoke can harm the lungs and heart, especially in children, pregnant women, seniors, and people with conditions like asthma. COVID-19 adds a new layer of concern. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, inhaling wildfire smoke can make people more prone to lung infections such as COVID-19. It also may exacerbate symptoms for people who currently have the disease or are recovering from it.

While the research on this is still emerging, University of California at San Francisco assistant professor Dr. Stephanie Cristenson said “wildfire smoke actually could make you more susceptible to COVID-19, or it could make COVID-19 worse.” Cristenson added that she’s particularly concerned about the long-term effects of smoke inhalation for people recovering from COVID-19. “A patient who’s just getting over their very severe respiratory infection and now is inhaling smoke into their lungs — is that going to make their symptoms worse? Are they now going to have to go back into the hospital?”

[Read: How cities should prepare for a season of dual disasters]

In normal times, cities like Seattle operate clean-air shelters where residents can go when wildfire smoke gets bad. But this year, city leaders must balance the benefits of that approach against the risk of bringing people together and potentially spreading COVID. In general, they’re sticking to a simple message for the public when smoke reaches dangerous levels: Stay home.

San Francisco health authorities are telling residents to stay inside with windows and doors closed — and to set air conditioning units to re-circulate air to prevent smoke from coming inside. Seattle leaders suggest residents use portable air cleaners at home, or even jerry-rig one out of a box fan and a “MERV 13” air filter. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has been handing out these materials in low-income neighborhoods and using this video to show people how to build their own filter fan and use it safely.

For residents who do venture outside, wildfire smoke complicates the messaging local leaders have been putting out for months around facemasks. While cloth face coverings offer protection from COVID-19, they don’t do much to prevent harm from wildfire smoke. A properly fitted N95 respirator is the preferred defense against smoke, but those remain in short-enough supply that it’s still recommended that they be reserved first for health-care workers and people who have no choice but to work outdoors in the smoke.

In that spirit, the Port of Los Angeles recently joined an effort to donate 75,000 facemasks that are the European equivalent of N95 to the United Farm Workers of America. “Farm workers never take a day off, even in the face of threats to their health and safety — and their determination means there’s never a shortage of food on our shelves, in our pantries, and on our tables,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Delivering these masks to these courageous folks upholds our core commitment: to serve our essential, frontline workers as well as they serve us.”

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