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Health experts offer tips to protect against double-whammy of COVID-19, wildfire smoke

Wildfire smoke and COVID-19 are double trouble, especially if you have the virus.

That’s why environmental health experts at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) are offering safety tips as the temperature starts to heat up.

They’re also urging people to start thinking now about how they will protect themselves from the impact potential smoky skies.

Sarah Henderson is the senior scientist, Environmental Health Services, with the BCCDC.

She says COVID-19 complicates things, especially for people with respiratory conditions and other chronic diseases

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“Wildfire smoke always affects our health but one of the things that it does is affects (our) immune system,” she explained.

“So if you’re exposed to wildfire smoke and you’re exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19, you may be more likely to actually become a case of COVID-19. Your immune system might not fight it off, or you might have a more severe case of COVID-19 than you would otherwise have, so we’re always worried about how smoke affects health, but we’re particularly worried this year with COVID-19 still circulating in the population.” 

She added that air pollution such as wildfire smoke can have a negative impact on your immune system. It can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, and alter immune function, making it more difficult to fight respiratory infections such as COVID-19.

While the best way to protect yourself from wildfire smoke is to reduce exposure and find clean air spaces, Henderson says this could be more difficult in the weeks and months ahead under physical distancing guidelines.

“During periods of poor air quality, we usually suggest that people seek cleaner air in places such as malls, libraries or community centres,” says Henderson, “but access to these spaces may be more restricted during the pandemic.”

Henderson says people can take additional steps to create their own cleaner air space at home:

  • Use a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms. Portable air cleaners work best when run continuously with doors and windows closed.   
  • Whenever possible, use air conditioners, heat pumps, evaporative coolers, fans, and window shades to keep your cleaner air space comfortably cool on hot days. Overheating can cause serious health problems.
  • If you have a forced air system in your home, talk to your service provider about different filters and settings that can be used to reduce indoor smoke.
  • Avoid activities that create more indoor and outdoor air pollution, such as frying foods, sweeping and vacuuming, and using gas-powered appliances.
  • Most face masks worn to reduce COVID-19 risk provide limited protection from wildfire smoke.

If you have symptoms when it’s smoky outside, the BCCDC says:

  • Exposure to wildfire smoke and COVID-19 can both cause respiratory symptoms such as a dry cough, sore throat, or difficulty breathing.
  • Anyone experiencing severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, or chest pain should seek prompt medical attention by calling 9-1-1 or going to the nearest Emergency Department. It is safe to do so.
  • If you are experiencing mild symptoms, use the BC COVID-19 Self-Assessment Tool to help determine whether you need further assessment or testing for COVID-19.  
  • If you still have questions after using the self-assessment tool, contact your healthcare provider or call 8-1-1 for further guidance.

Health Emergency Management British Columbia (HEMBC), which has been helping coordinate COVID-19 Emergency Operation Centres (EOCs) across the health system, is working closely with Emergency Management BC on the development of evacuation guidelines in the context of the pandemic.

“In addition to evacuation guidelines, emergency plan development and other fire safety preparations, our staff is prepared to support the recovery phase of impacted communities,” says John Lavery, executive director, HEMBC. 

“We are aware that the emotional toll of an emergency or a disaster can be long lasting, so our psychosocial services teams will monitor wildfire movement throughout the season to anticipate any support needed during and after the season.”

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