Large wildfires are causing poor air quality across much of Okanogan County (see News Release). Breathing wildfire smoke can damage our lungs, which means people are more likely to get respiratory infections, including COVID-19. Poor air quality can also make it harder to recover from COVID-19.
How can we avoid wildfire smoke exposure and also maintain safe COVID-19 practices?
We know that breathing wildfire smoke can cause serious health problems, especially for children, pregnant women, adults older than 65, and people with heart and lung diseases or respiratory illnesses. Some of these groups are also at the highest risk for COVID-19. We recommend people monitor the air quality in their area and stay indoors when wildfire smoke makes air quality unhealthy. The Washington Air Quality Advisory and Air Monitoring Network can help you track air quality in your area and offers guidance on which groups need to be especially careful.
Some of the symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure look very similar to symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing. If you have any of these symptoms, it is best to treat it like it could be COVID-19: protect others by staying home. If you are concerned, call your healthcare provider, or contact one on this list, to get tested for COVID-19.
Ways to limit your exposure to wildfire smoke while also staying COVID-19 safe:
1. Stay home and keep indoor air clean. Limit outdoor physical activity when air quality is unhealthy. Here are a few ways to keep indoor air clean:
- Close windows and doors when it is smoky outside.
- Keep it cool indoors by closing curtains during daytime and using an air conditioner or fans.
- Set air conditioners on ‘recirculate’ to prevent outside air from coming in.
- Turn off fans that vent to the outside, like the one in your bathroom. Exhaust fans pull outside air in through cracks around windows and doors.
- Avoid adding to indoor air pollution and do not vacuum, use candles, or smoke.
- Use a portable air cleaner with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter or a DIY box fan filter (watch this WA Dept of Ecology video to show you how to make your own, Spanish version here, and another video from the Colville tribe) .
** NOTE: These air filters will reduce the amount of wildfire smoke particles in the air, but will not protect you from COVID-19.
2. Continue to wear face masks and coverings: Cloth face coverings do not provide much protection from breathing in wildfire smoke. N95 masks and respirators do protect from smoke and COVID-19, but these are in limited supply and should be saved for people who need to wear them for work. Remember to continue to wear face coverings in public spaces to slow the spread of COVID-19.
You may be considering leaving the area to find cleaner air or going to a friend’s or relative’s house who has air conditioning. However, it is important to remember that COVID-19 spreads when people are in poorly ventilated, indoor spaces. This is a decision that must be made based on your own personal health conditions. If you are uncertain what to do, contact your healthcare provider for guidance.
- When air quality is poor, stay indoors and keep indoor air clean. Postpone gathering with others if it cannot be done outside due to wildfire smoke.
- Continue to follow COVID-19 safety protocols when there is wildfire smoke in the air. Always wear a facial covering when you are inside with people who you do not live with, or when you are in public spaces.
- Some symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19 are the same. If you have shortness of breath, dry cough, sore throat, assume that it is COVID-19, stay home and away from others. Contact your healthcare provider for guidance if symptoms are severe or you are worried about your symptoms.
Washington State Department of Health Recommendations for wildfire smoke and COVID-19 during the 2020 wildfire season, Updated July 28, 2020. (https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/1600/coronavirus/WFSCOVID_Recommendations.pdf)
Washington Smoke Blog: https://wasmoke.blogspot.com/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19, updated June 5, 2020 (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/smoke-faq.html)