Smoke Exposure or Covid-19? Colorado Governor Says Wildfires Could Mask the Spread of the Virus

Smoke Exposure or Covid-19? Colorado Governor Says Wildfires Could Mask the Spread of the Virus
Mountain tops burned by the Pine Gulch Fire sit cleared of fire activity on August 26, 2020 in Grand Junction, Colorado. (Photo: Alex Edelman, Getty Images)

Asking whether you could be suffering from smoke exposure or covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, sounds like a horrible joke. However, it is an unfortunate reality in Colorado and other states that are experiencing wildfire hell right now. In response, Colorado officials have one message: Get tested.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis advised residents that are experiencing symptoms such as a cough or a sore throat to get tested for covid-19 this week. In a news conference, he expressed concern that the impact of the fires on respiratory conditions could mask the spread of the virus. Polis stated that Colorado has more than 80 free covid-19 testing sites available.

“The early symptoms of covid look a lot like breathing bad air for a period of hours and then, of course, the difference is, in some cases, covid significantly worsens over the next few days,” Polis said, per the Coloradoan.

Firefighting crews across Colorado have been battling fierce wildfires for weeks. As of Saturday, two of the most serious were the Cameron Peak Fire (83,700 hectares) and the East Troublesome Fire (76,000 hectares).

Polis’ advice is not without reason. According to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, respiratory symptoms such as dry cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing are common to both wildfire smoke exposure and covid-19.

In fact, the CDC has dedicated web pages for people seeking information on wildfire smoke and covid-19, which offer advice on the differences between smoke exposure symptoms and covid-19, mask usage during wildfire smoke exposure and considerations for cleaner air shelters, among other topics.

“Hopefully, it’s just the smoke and the fires, and you’ll be better when that resolves,” Polis said at the conference. “But you owe it to yourself, the safety of your family and others, because in some cases that could, in fact, be coronavirus.”

As if dealing with wildfires and covid-19 weren’t bad enough, public health officials warn that smoke exposure could make the pandemic worse. In an interview with the New York Times in July, Sarah Henderson, senior environmental health scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, said smoke particles do a number on the human body.

“When your immune system is overwhelmed by particles, it’s not going to do such a good job fighting other things, like viruses,” she said.

On one hand, smoke particles affect the body’s cilia, or hair-like projections that keep unwanted things out of our lungs. This makes it harder to clear out viruses, per the Times. And on the other hand, smoke and covid-19 can greatly affect the body’s respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

The CDC is equally bleak on the matter. The agency states that exposure to air pollutants in wildfire smoke can “irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, likely including covid-19.” It added that recent studies suggest that air pollutant exposure worsens the disease’s symptoms and outcomes.

So if you’re in Colorado or another area experiencing wildfires, what can you do to stay safe from smoke exposure during the pandemic? To minimise potential health impacts from wildfire smoke, the CDC says the best way is to reduce smoke exposure. One way of doing this is by finding a cleaner air shelter or cleaner air space. These are short and long-term public spaces, such as school gyms, civic auditoriums and libraries, meant to provide relief from wildfire smoke.

Nonetheless, the CDC acknowledges that it could be hard to find a shelter or space right now because of the pandemic, which has closed many public facilities or forced them to operate with limited capacity. If you can’t get to one of these spaces, the agency recommends creating a cleaner air space at home.

To create a cleaner air space, use a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms. These devices work best when run continuously with the doors and windows closed. If you have a forced air system, consider having a professional install a filter, which must be HEPA, MERV-13 or higher, to reduce indoor smoke. For these systems, the CDC also adds that it’s best that the settings are set to “recirculate” and “on” instead of “auto.”

Unfortunately, although cloth face masks are some of our most important tools in the fight against covid-19, they won’t be of much help against the harmful air pollutants in wildfire smoke. This is because they don’t capture the smallest particles in smoke, the CDC maintains. N95 masks do provide protection from wildfire smoke, but they might be hard to find right now because we’re in a pandemic that broke single-day records for new infections two days in row this past week.

Another thing to consider: N95 masks are considered critical supplies that the federal officials stress must be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders.

Besides wildfires and covid-19, Colorado is also expecting a blizzard this weekend. While that may sound like just too much, many in the state are hoping the snow will provide them with some relief from the wildfires. In that case, please, let it snow.