Scientists investigate link between pollution and Covid after cases rose sharply in Reno, Nev., when a heavy layer of wildfire smoke descended on the city last year
- Research shows that the number of COVID-19 cases after wildfires has increased by almost 18%
- Concerns grow that current wildfires blowing smoke across the country could lead to a rise in coronavirus
- Scientists theorize that the virus can attach to pollutants and get into the lungs
- Lead scientist in research calls on residents to get vaccinated and wear masks
The number of COVID-19 cases rose nearly 18% in Reno, Nevada last year after a heavy layer of wildfire smoke descended on the city, according to findings from the Desert Research Institute.
Scientists believe there is a link with air pollution caused by the smoke between August 16 and October 10 and a local increase in COVID-19 cases.
“Our results showed a substantial increase in the COVID-19 positivity rate in Reno at a time when we were affected by heavy wildfire smoke from California wildfires,” said Daniel Kiser, a co-lead author of the study published in the Journal of Exposure Science. and environmental epidemiology.
“This is important to be aware of as we are already dealing with heavy wildfire smoke… with COVID-19 cases rising again in Nevada and other parts of the western US”
Nevada wildfires raged in the summer and fall of 2020. Smoke from the fires, such as the Pinehaven Fire, pictured above, found to be linked to the rise of COVID-19 in Reno
The flames destroyed thousands of acres and blackened the sky with smoke
Smoke rises from a neighborhood in southwest Reno
There are currently more than 80 wildfires in the west with clouds of smoke and haze reaching New York City.
Kiser told the Reno Gazette Journal he hoped the research would motivate more people to get vaccinated and wear masks to reduce their exposure to the virus amid the latest wildfires.
Kiser and his team collected data from the Washoe County Health District and Renown Health, the region’s largest hospital system, where they found wildfire particles of 2.5 micrometers — about one-thirtieth the size of a human hair — or less.
The 450,000 residents of Washoe County, many of whom live in Reno, have been dealing with these particles for 43 days, the team said. The study compared the area to that of San Francisco Bay, where people were exposed to those particles for just 26 days.
“Last year here in Reno we had a unique situation where we were exposed to smoke from wildfires more often than in many other areas, including the Bay Area,” said Dr. Gai Elhanan, co-lead author of the study and an associate research scientist of computer science at the institute. “We are located in a valley between the mountains that limits the spread of pollutants and potentially increases the magnitude of exposure, making it even more important for us to understand the effects of smoke on human health.”
Reno and city fire departments teamed up to vaccinate residents in April
They concluded that the wildfire particles were responsible for the increase in COVID-19 cases in the area.
While other research around the world points to similar conclusions, scientists have not yet identified the mechanism that increases the risk.
Some have speculated that the virus attaches to pollutants and gets into people’s lungs.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have their own webpage on wildfire smoke and COVID-19 providing tips on how to prepare for wildfire season, including identifying highly efficient air filters and maintaining a stock of N95 respirators that filter out particulates.
Creating clean air at home to protect against wildfire pollution
- Use a portable air purifier in one or more rooms. Portable air purifiers work best when used continuously with doors and windows closed.
- If you are using a DIY box fan filtration unit, never leave it unattended.
- During periods of extreme heat, pay attention to temperature forecasts and know how to stay safe in the heat.
- Whenever possible, use air conditioners, heat pumps, fans and blinds to keep your cleaner air space comfortably cool on hot days.
- If you have a forced air system in your home, you may need to speak with a qualified heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) professional about different filters (HEPA or MERV-13 or higher) and settings (“Recirculate” and “On” in instead of “Auto”) that you can use to reduce indoor smoke.
- Avoid activities that increase indoor and outdoor air pollution, such as frying food, sweeping, vacuuming, and using gas appliances.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention