Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19: Frequently Asked Questions and Resources for Air Resource Advisors and Other Environmental Health Professionals

Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19: Frequently Asked Questions and Resources for Air Resource Advisors and Other Environmental Health Professionals
Updated June 5, 2020

The purpose of this document is to provide Air Resource Advisors and other environmental health professionals with key messages about wildfire smoke and COVID-19. It also provides resources that can be given to communities affected by wildfire smoke during community spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Why do people need to consider COVID-19 along with wildfire smoke?

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is overlapping with the occurrence of wildfires in the United States.
  • Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of air pollutants that are harmful to human health.
  • 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.
  • Recent scientific publications (Conticini et al., 2020external icon & Travaglio et al., 2020external icon) suggest that air pollutant exposure worsens COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes.

Who is most at risk from wildfire smoke?

  • Populations known to be vulnerable to wildfire smoke exposures include:
    • Children less than 18 years;
    • Adults age 65 years or older;
    • Pregnant women;
    • People with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease, including asthma and diabetes;
    • Outdoor workers;
    • People of low socioeconomic status, including those who are homeless and with limited access to medical care.

Who else is at risk from wildfire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic?

  • The overlap of the COVID-19 pandemic with wildfire season in the United States complicates public health response to wildfire smoke. Persons who are either susceptible to or affected by COVID-19 may have health conditions that also make them vulnerable to wildfire smoke exposure. Persons who might also be at risk from wildfire smoke because of COVID-19 include:
    • Those who are immunocompromised or taking drugs that suppress the immune system;
    • Those with or recovering from COVID-19. Because of compromised heart and lung function due to COVID-19, they may be at increased risk of health effects from exposure to wildfire smoke.

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Respiratory symptoms such as dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing are common to both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19.

How are symptoms from wildfire smoke exposure different from symptoms of COVID-19?

  • Information on symptoms of COVID-19 is available. If you are experiencing symptoms unrelated to smoke exposure such as, fever or chills, muscle or body aches, diarrhea, the CDC COVID-19 Self-Checker can help determine whether further assessment or testing for COVID-19 is needed.
  • If you have questions after using the CDC COVID-19 Self-Checker, you should contact a healthcare provider.
  • If you are experiencing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or chest pain, you should seek prompt medical attention by calling 911 or calling ahead to the nearest emergency facility.

Where can I find information about current air quality and COVID-19 in my area?

What actions can I take to minimize potential health impacts from wildfire smoke?

  • Understand that your planning may be different this year because of the need to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.
  • The best way to protect against the potentially harmful effects of wildfire smoke is to reduce wildfire smoke exposure, for example, by seeking cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces.
  • While social distancing guidelines are in place, finding cleaner air might be challenging if public facilities such as libraries, community centers, and shopping malls are closed or have limited capacity.
  • Create a cleaner air space at home to protect yourself from wildfire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Use a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms. Portable air cleaners work best when run continuously with doors and windows closed.
    • Do-it-yourself box fan filtration units should never be left unattended.
    • During periods of extreme heat, pay attention to temperature forecastsexternal icon and know how to stay safe in the heat.
    • Whenever possible, use air conditioners, heat pumps, fans, and window shades to keep your cleaner air space comfortably cool on hot days.
    • If you have a forced air system in your home, it may be necessary to work with a qualified heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) professional about different filters (HEPA or MERV-13 or higher) and settings (recirculate and “on” rather than “Auto”) that can be used to reduce indoor smoke.
    • Avoid activities that create more indoor and outdoor air pollution, such as frying foods, sweeping, vacuuming, and using gas-powered appliances.
  • Limit outdoor exercise when it is smoky outside or choose lower-intensity activities to reduce smoke exposure.

Can masks and face coverings reduce wildfire smoke exposure?

  • Although N95 respirators provide protection from wildfire smoke, they might be in short supply as frontline healthcare workers use them during the pandemic.
  • Cloth face coverings that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 offer little protection against harmful air pollutants in wildfire smoke because these coverings do not capture most small particles in smoke.

What else can I do to stay healthy if it gets smoky this wildfire season?

What actions can I take if I must evacuate?

  • Pay attention to local guidance about updated plans for evacuations and shelters, including potential shelters for your pets.
  • If you are asked to evacuate by public authorities or if you decide to evacuate then please evacuate safely.
  • When you check on neighbors and friends before evacuating, be sure to follow social distancing recommendations (staying at least 6 feet from others) and other CDC recommendations to protect yourself and others.
  • If you need to go to a disaster shelter, follow CDC recommendations for staying safe and healthy in a public disaster shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Resources

See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html for more information about COVID-19.

Additional information about COVID-19

Information about the health effects of wildfire smoke and reducing exposure to wildfire smoke

Air quality, wildfire information, smoke forecasts, and information on vulnerable populations

Research about air pollution and SARS mortality

Research about air pollution and COVID-19