A new study led by the Desert Research Institute in Reno, NV, has linked wildfire smoke exposure to an increased susceptibility to COVID-19. The study was published last week in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.
Wildfire smoke is known to be hazardous to our health. It carries a mix of gases and particles, the most harmful of which is fine particulate matter, PM2.5. These tiny particles penetrate deep into our bodies, impairing the usual functioning of the lungs. This can lead to people feeling lightheaded, nauseous, and tired.
The research team wanted to examine how exposure to wildfire smoke might be contributing to the current pandemic. They measured PM2.5 levels and COVID-19 test positivity rate at hospitals in Reno between May and October 2020.
“We found a large increase in the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) test positivity rate during periods of elevated PM2.5 from wildfires. These results, although based on observational data with their inherent limitations, lend credence to earlier predictions that wildfire smoke would exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Dry, hot conditions have led to at least 33,000 wildfires in the U.S. already this year, and many thousands of people are affected by the smoke. Unfortunately, this coincides with other factors that may be worsening the pandemic, including new variants, the controversy around vaccines, and the dropping of restrictions in many regions. As COVID-19 cases rise in many parts of the world again, the researchers call to the applications of their research.
“Our results substantiate the role of air pollution in exacerbating the pandemic and can help guide the development of public preparedness policies in areas affected by wildfire smoke,” the study concluded. “These policies might include lowering the recommended healthy limit for PM2.5 in cities with a high prevalence of SARS-CoV-2, establishing “clean air” shelters that maintain social distancing, and allocating sufficient quantities of appropriate respirators to areas at high risk for wildfires.”