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Covid cases in Reno rose after a heavy layer of wildfire smoke settled over the city last year 

Scientists believe there is a link between pollution and Covid after cases in Reno, Nev. rose sharply when a heavy layer of wildfire smoke settled over the city last year

  • Study finds nearly 18% rise in COVID-19 cases following wildfires 
  • Worries grow that current wildfires billowing smoke across the country could lead to rise in coronavirus 
  • Scientists theorize that virus could attach to pollutants and get into lungs
  • Lead scientist in study calls on residents to get vaccinated and wear masks

COVID-19 cases rose by nearly 18% last year in Reno, Nevada, after a heavy layer of wildfire smoke settled over the city, according to findings from the Desert Research Institute.

Scientists believe there is a link to air pollution caused by the smoke between Aug. 16 and Oct. 10 and a rise in COVID-19 cases locally. 

‘Our results showed a substantial increase in the COVID-19 positivity rate in Reno during a time when we were affected by heavy wildfire smoke from California wildfires,’ said Daniel Kiser, a co-lead author of the study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. 

‘This is important to be aware of as we are already confronting heavy wildfire smoke…with COVID-19 cases again rising in Nevada and other parts of the western U.S.’ 

Wild fires raged in Nevada in the summer and fall of 2020. Smoke from the blazes, like the Pinehaven Fire, pictured above, were found to be linked to the rise of COVID-19 in Reno

The flames destroyed thousands of acres and blackened the air with smoke

The flames destroyed thousands of acres and blackened the air with smoke

Smoke rises from a neighborhood in southwest Reno

Smoke rises from a neighborhood in southwest Reno  

There are currently more than 80 wildfires blazing in the west with smoke clouds and haze reaching New York City. 

Kiser told the Reno Gazette Journal that he hoped the research would motivate more people to get vaccinated and wear masks to reduce their exposure to the virus amid the latest wildfires. 

Kiser and his team collected data from the Washoe County Health District and Renown Health, the region’s largest hospital system, where they discovered wildfire particles that measured 2.5 micrometers – about one-thirtieth the size of a human hair – or less. 

Washoe County’s 450,000 residents, many of whom live in Reno, experienced those particles for 43 days, the team said. The study compared the area with that of the San Francisco Bay, where people dealt with those particles for only 26 days. 

“We had a unique situation here in Reno last year where we were exposed to wildfire smoke more often than many other areas, including the Bay Area,” said Dr. Gai Elhanan, co-lead author of the study and an associate research scientist of computer science at the institute. “We are located in an intermountain valley that restricts the dispersion of pollutants and possibly increases the magnitude of exposure, which makes it even more important for us to understand smoke impacts on human health.”

 Kiser and Elhanan’s team also cite a study out of Northern Italy where researches there found new coronavirus on these particles. 

Kent Pinkerton, an expert on air pollution at the University of California, said there’s concern among physicians and scientists about the impact of climate change on cardiopulmonary health, a topic he’s currently addressing in an article he’s submitting to a medical journal. 

“Hotter temperatures, climate change, wildfires, air pollution, all seem to have some association with a greater risk of COVID-19 cases,” Pinkerton said. “If you’re susceptible to air pollution, such as particulate matter, it could be that you just have a situation where you’ll be also much more susceptible to viral particles that might be in the air that you’re breathing.

Pinkerton added that there was a research in Turkey showing an upswing in COVID-19 cases that may be linked to air pollution.  

The Reno Fire Department and the city worked together to vaccinate residents in April

The Reno Fire Department and the city worked together to vaccinate residents in April 

They concluded that the wildfire particles were responsible for the rise in COVID-19 cases in the area. 

While other research around the world points to similar conclusions, scientists have not yet found the mechanism that increases the risk. 

Some have speculated that the virus attach to pollutants an get into people’s lungs. 

Kiser and Pinkerton said some researches theorized that because the pollutants make their way through the nasal, throat and lung passages, the inflammations they create along the way can make those areas ripe for infection.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its own webpage about wildfire smoke and COVID-19 that that provides tips on how to prepare for wildfire season, including identifying high-efficiency air filters and maintaining a supply of N95 respirators which filter out particulates.

Creating clean air at home to protect against wildfire pollution

  • Use a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms. Portable air cleaners work best when run continuously with doors and windows closed.
  • If you use a do-it-yourself box fan filtration unit, never leave it unattended.
  • During periods of extreme heat, pay attention to temperature forecasts and know how to stay safe in the heat.
  • Whenever you can, 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, you may need to speak 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”) you can use 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.

 Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention