Twin Disasters: How West Coast Fires Could Affect COVID-19 Epidemic


As the California Wildfire and COVID-19 pandemic rage on, they can prevent a serious double threat.

“We are now battling two public health crises,” Panagis Galiatsatos, MD, MHS, a pulmonologist at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told ABC News.

And it gets worse: the two forces of nature can interact with each other. “When we have public health concerns for hurricanes from wildfires, we worry about the worsening spread of the virus,” Galiyatsos said.

Wildfire smoke particulate matter causes air pollution by creating tiny particles that can bypass filters in the nose and throat and penetrate deep into the lungs. These particles can cause airway inflammation, which increases susceptibility to respiratory infections, increases underlying respiratory conditions and increases the risk for hospitalization and death from pneumonia.

Simone Wilds, MD, a South Coast infectious disease specialist, said, “Further study will give us more information about wildfires and COVID-19, but we know that air pollution makes COVID-19 worse, Especially if you have underlying conditions, ”Health and ABC News Medical Unit contributor. The cause of airway inflammation in underlying conditions with smoke or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease such as smoke is a “perfect storm” for poor COVID-19 results, she said.

“Even if you have a lot of working lungs, if you breathe in the remains of a fire, your lungs can get impaired and get sick to fight the virus,” Galiatos said.

Previous studies have shown that during wildfires, affected areas would see a significant increase in emergency room visits and hospital admissions for respiratory diseases (such as asthma or emphysema) and cardiac conditions (such as heart attacks and strokes). is. Now, experts worry that wild animals may add to the strain of the epidemic in California hospitals. “Hospitals are suffering from shortness of breath due to the damage caused by the fire. Efficiency will increase,” Wilds said.

As people are forced to flee fire and seek refuge together, social disturbance efforts can be compromised. Shelter crowding is a major concern, she said, but so are the effects of flushing out toxins from wildfire smoke. “The great thing is that social disturbances are getting tougher, but you have to balance the immediate danger, such as the need for people to get protection from fire, with the overall danger of infection spreading. The important thing is that social Get back the mess. As soon as you are able. ”

Similarly, Wilds explained, “Living indoors is a double-edged sword.”

“If your house is so close to a fire, you have to evacuate, but if you’re not so close, it’s safe to stay indoors and protect yourself from smoke,” she said. Unfortunately, if you have to go outside, the clothes masks recommended to reduce COVID-19 transmission will not protect you from the effects of air pollution. “N95 masks work best in fire, but due to epidemics, we have a shortage, which is another double-edged sword.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide guidelines for staying safe while the COVID-19 epidemic overlaps with the devastating wildfire. Frequent checking of air quality reports is necessary. The CDC recommends creating a cleaner air space at home, if possible, as well as following social disturbances and respiratory and hand hygiene practices if you need to go to a public disaster shelter.

Because COVID-19 and smoke inhalation can result in similar symptoms – shortness of breath, sore throat, cough – dr. Wilds recommend discussing any related symptoms with your health care provider to see if the COVID-19 test is recommended.

“The major thing to remember is that if people don’t catch the virus, they can’t spread it. Now is the time to do everything you can.”

Leah Kroll, MD, is a neurology resident at NYU Langone Health and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

The report was published on Tuesday, September 15, 2020 in the “Start Here, ABC News” daily news podcast.

“Start Here” offers a straightforward look at the top stories of the day in 20 minutes. Listen to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, ABC News App or wherever you find your podcasts for free each week.

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