As the calendar shifts to fall and wildfires continue to rage in California, researchers are warning of a potential “triple threat” impacting the health of residents: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, poor air quality from the fires and the incoming flu season.
The peak of flu season typically begins in October. This year, it will coincide with the worst fire season in California’s modern history and a pandemic that shows no sign of waning.
Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research, said research has shown that a community is more susceptible to a higher influenza rate following a wildfire event.
“Your immune system in general is more susceptible to any type of viral pathogen, whether it’s influenza or COVID,” Prunicki said. “Studies have shown association with air pollution and influenza seasons.”
Multiple studies both domestically and internationally have shown a link between an increase in air pollution and rate of
COVID-19, the same kind of association that linked rates of other coronaviruses like SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2004 with air quality, according to Prunicki.
Several wildfires have already burned or are currently burning throughout Northern California. Fires have destroyed more than 2 million acres in the state, and the August Lightning Complex near Mendocino is the largest fire ever recorded in California. The fires have dramatically and visibly worsened air quality in the metropolitan Bay Area, resulting in smoky, hazy and even orange skies and a distinct cigarette-like smell. Until last week, the air quality index had consistently hovered between “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” in the region.
Prunicki said that according to research, a person’s immune system is negatively impacted by air pollution – especially a heavy amount of it.
“Wildfire smoke is like getting a huge dose of bad air at once, unfortunately,” she said. “If you live in an area of elevated pollution or you experience an event like this, you already have compromised your immune system a little bit. So, you may end up being more susceptible to COVID or to a more severe impact of COVID.”
The combination of a pandemic and poor air quality can lead to a Catch-22 in terms of keeping the immune system fit. Exercise has proven to boost the immune system, yet running and biking are strenuous outdoor activities that lead to a heavy intake of bad air. Many gyms are closed or operating at a limited capacity due to the pandemic.
Prunicki recommends getting good, quality sleep; changing air filters; and continuing to follow social-distancing guidance per the COVID-19 protocols.
“When you go outdoors, unfortunately, the last thing you want to do is exercise hard,” she said. “It’s not really feasible. Anything you can, do to boost your cardio indoors until you’re free to go back outside.”
Additionally, cloth masks that might work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are relatively ineffective in blocking wildfire smoke. Prunicki cited a study that compared a cloth mask to the sturdier N-95 mask, which found that a cloth mask filters out only half of air particles.
“That’s better than nothing,” she said. “But the best is just to stay inside if you can.”