Cotton masks won't protect you from wildfire smoke that can worsen Covid-19 symptoms, doctors warn

Fires burning across California and Colorado are pumping out smoke that would be bad enough on its own, but might also worsen coronavirus symptoms, doctors w...

Posted: Aug 20, 2020 4:12 PM
Updated: Aug 21, 2020 12:15 PM

Fires burning across California and Colorado are pumping out smoke that would be bad enough on its own, but might also worsen coronavirus symptoms, doctors warned Thursday.

Three doctors in California say residents should be aware that wildfire smoke worsens respiratory symptoms and could lead to increased ER visits for asthma and other respiratory issues.

Smoke particles from the fires, which spread for hundreds of miles, damage the lungs, said Dr. Stephanie Christenson, a University of California San Francisco assistant professor of medicine.

The particles, 20 to 30 times smaller than the diameter of a hair follicle, 'can get in and lodge deeply in the lungs and cause inflammation,' Christensen told a briefing sponsored by UCSF.

'And that is also what we were worried about in Covid-19, whereas people get more severe disease, the inflammation in their lungs can overwhelm the system, and potentially cause really severe issues,' she said.

It's not certain smoke worsens coronavirus symptoms, she said, but it probably does.

ER visits may soar

Emergency rooms can expect an increase in the number of patients showing up with respiratory symptoms, said Dr. Jahan Fahimi, medical director of the UCSF Emergency Department.

'During times of poor air quality, emergency departments will oftentimes be on the receiving end of patients with respiratory complaints and so we do expect that in places where the wildfires are particularly raging bad, that those ERs will likely see an uptick in the number of patients presenting to the ER,' Fahimi said.

This is where things get tricky when dealing with a pandemic and wildfires.

People are being told the outdoors is safer for averting coronavirus infections. 'That certainly is true,' Fahimi said.

'However, when the air quality is this bad, outdoor poses a whole new risk with respect to the wildfire exposure. All the more reason to shelter in place and stay at home.'

Cotton masks not adequate

And then there is the issue of masks.

'Important to remind people that the cloth face coverings that people are wearing with regard to Covid-19 do not protect you - by in large, do not protect you - from wildfire smoke exposure,' said Dr. John Balmes, a UCSF professor of medicine in the divisions of occupational and environmental medicine and pulmonary and critical care.

That doesn't mean people should nix the cotton masks altogether. 'If you can't get either a surgical mask or an N95, wear the cloth mask, because the most important thing right now is to protect others from transmission of the virus,' Balmes said.

Plus, said Fahimi, people infected with Covid-19 'who are irritated by wildfire smoke may cough and sneeze and spread that virus, so ever more important for everyone to wear to wear masks.'

And what about the firefighters working on the front lines, in close quarters, sleeping in tents and eating together?

'It's an issue,' Balmes said. 'The US Forest Service has been concerned about this for months.'

Crews with the US Forest Service are trying to camp separately and socially distance. When firefighters aren't on the front lines, they are wearing masks, he said.

Compounding the issues -- CalFire often utilizes prisoners on the fire lines.

'Prisoners have been particularly hard hit with SARS-CoV-2 infection,' Balmes said. This year at a fire training camp for prisoners, 'I think about half of the people being trained came down with the SARS-CoV-2 infection,' he said.

'It's a big problem and we have to really support our firefighters. They are working really hard in very dangerous conditions and are really at risk for both Covid-19 and the effects of wildfire smoke,' he said.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 178110

Reported Deaths: 2468
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah35509570
Washington23824229
Marion20503299
Clackamas15674204
Lane11854144
Jackson10123129
Umatilla800883
Deschutes736872
Linn425664
Yamhill415575
Klamath362559
Polk350352
Malheur343558
Josephine311762
Douglas307066
Benton280219
Jefferson208332
Coos199231
Columbia157526
Union142024
Wasco132028
Lincoln131220
Hood River114029
Morrow108515
Clatsop9118
Crook90719
Baker88114
Curry6069
Tillamook5893
Grant4314
Lake4197
Harney3156
Wallowa1585
Gilliam571
Sherman571
Wheeler261
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 3727913

Reported Deaths: 61309
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles123039823736
Riverside2977704555
San Bernardino2953154572
San Diego2759123684
Orange2693524910
Santa Clara1175382025
Kern1081311335
Sacramento1019061653
Fresno1008381654
Alameda857621481
Ventura803981002
San Joaquin718991340
Contra Costa67300782
Stanislaus606771035
Tulare49469831
Monterey43346380
San Mateo41318560
San Francisco36194529
Santa Barbara33926445
Solano32126244
Merced31321454
Sonoma29747318
Imperial28052719
Kings22825246
Placer21979283
San Luis Obispo21038260
Madera16309240
Santa Cruz15759204
Marin13883227
Yolo13606205
Shasta11779219
Butte11643196
El Dorado9831109
Napa973779
Sutter9322110
Yuba613844
San Benito599863
Lassen568524
Tehama545957
Nevada450575
Tuolumne409164
Mendocino399847
Humboldt369738
Amador363247
Lake342143
Glenn236125
Colusa220816
Calaveras206652
Siskiyou197921
Inyo141938
Del Norte12927
Mono12744
Plumas6976
Modoc4924
Mariposa4317
Trinity3985
Sierra1100
Alpine880
Unassigned680
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