Study Finds Dramatic Jump in Positive COVID-19 Cases Due to Wildfire Smoke

Image: Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 sweeps across the country, hospitals and public health officials are once again struggling to cope with the fallout. Simultaneously, extreme heat and wildfires have left the Western U.S. (and currently, Eastern ones too) experiencing dangerous levels of wildfire smoke.

Now, a new study has now confirmed what many experts have suspected since the summer of 2020: wildfire smoke exacerbates coronavirus cases to the disproportionate detriment of BIPOC communities.

Why This Matters: While over 67% of Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the more contagious Delta variant has continued to spread, already, researchers have linked severe COVID-19 to air pollution, industrial pollution, and PFAS, all threats that disproportionately impact people of color.

The authors of this study expressed that the results have implications beyond Western states and that air pollution has broadly damaged humans’ ability to fight off disease. As the risk of emerging new viruses increases, air pollution could increase the vulnerability of the global populace to succumbing to disease. 

Communities of Color Hit Hardest: Black and Hispanic communities have some of the lowest vaccination rates due to lack of access to the internet, accurate information, healthcare, restrictive work schedules, and somewhat justified distrust of the American medical community.

  • These communities are some of the most at risk for COVID-19 in the U.S., and that risk only increases as plummeting air quality and extreme heat become the new normal across the west.

Smoke Signals: The observational study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, found that when air quality monitors reported high levels of a wildfire smoke particulate known as PM2.5, the rate of positive COVID-19 cases jumped.

  • For every ten micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 present in the air, cases increased by 6.3% within the next week. 

That temporary association in the midst of a large uptick in cases overall is what convinced us that something’s going on,” Desert Research Institute Assistant Research Scientist Daniel Kiser told the Associated Press. The study concluded, “our findings also bolster arguments that PM2.5 from other sources such as vehicle traffic or industry, increases susceptibility to” COVID-19.

To prevent future tragedy, environmental justice must be a priority in all climate and public health policies. President Biden has pledged to ensure BIPOC communities have a seat at the table and tangibly feel the benefits of federal policy. Experts say that future research on viruses must go hand in hand with pollution to protect marginalized communities and the world.

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