Wildfire Smoke Increases COVID-19 Risk for Frontline Communities

Image: August de Richelieu/Pexels

by Razi Beresin-Scher and Miro Korenha

According to recent reporting from The Hill, atmospheric smoke is exacerbating the toll of the COVID-19 virus in Oregon and California. Smoke inhalation weakens the immune systems of those suffering from asthma and other underlying respiratory conditions, compromising their ability to recover from the virus. 

Researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that even a small increase in the amount of fine particulate matter (like that resulting from wildfires) from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19

What’s worse is that smoke is placing an even greater strain on healthcare resources, since hospitalizations normally increase during wildfire season. As the Guardian wrote, California’s Stanford Health Care system reported that hospital admissions have jumped by 12% in recent weeks, including a stunning 43% increase in cerebrovascular conditions such as strokes. 

  • In Oregon, health officials reported nearly one out of 10 people visiting the emergency room had asthma-like conditions due to the smoke.

Meanwhile, the smoke has forced many public health facilities — including critical care units, outdoor testing sites, facilities for patients recovering from coronavirus, and health labs — to relocate their patients or shut down. 

Why this Matters: Being able to stay indoors and have access to air filtration and air conditioning as a precaution to both coronavirus and wildfire smoke is a luxury not afforded to everyone. 

Environmental racism and lack of affordable healthcare already place low-income communities at higher risk of respiratory illness and weeks of ongoing wildfires have underscored this disparity. The San Francisco Bay Area has seen over a month of consecutive Spare the Air days resulting from wildfires just as the state has surpassed 15,000 coronavirus deaths. Vulnerable communities have increasingly fewer resources to keep themselves safe from the dual threats of wildfires and COVID-19, with little hope of government relief in sight. 

Compounding Threats: The compounded threat of the West Coast wildfires and COVID-19 are yet another example of how environmental degradation doesn’t affect everyone equally. For instance, Black Americans suffer from asthma at disproportionately high rates. Low-income communities are exposed to increased amounts of air pollution, putting them at higher risk for cancers, and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. As the Mayo Clinic explained, underlying health conditions, such as heart or lung disease, can increase the risk of developing dangerous symptoms should a person become infected with COVID-19. 

Along with creating and exacerbating respiratory disabilities, wildfires pose a significantly greater risk to people who lack the resources to flee from the fires. While wealthier people have the option to relocate, many low-income Californians have been forced to remain in the high-risk areas where their homes are. Substandard low-income housing is often ineffective at keeping out smoke. The health department suggests purchasing devices like air purifiers and AC systems–which aren’t affordable for everyone. Meanwhile, unhoused people have very little protection from dangerous ambient air quality.  

These wildfires shine a light on existing racial and class disparities in our housing and healthcare systems. As we work to bolster the health of our society it’s important to remember that a pandemic of this nature will not be over once a vaccine is made available. We must work to ensure that healthcare is not a luxury and that the environment and people’s homes aren’t what’s making them vulnerable to infectious disease. 


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