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Winter inversion could make the COVID-19 pandemic worse

SHARE Winter inversion could make the COVID-19 pandemic worse

Buildings in downtown Salt Lake City poke through the inversion on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Winter inversions in the Salt Lake Valley are a well-known occurrence and an unfortunate reality for many Utahns. Each year, from roughly December to February, a sizable number of Salt Lake winter days are characterized by smog, low visibility and remarkably unhealthy air quality. Although many Utahns are accustomed to winter inversions, the associated health risks remain present, and arguably continue to intensify, year by year.

As Utah prepares for winter in the coming months, the ongoing threat and prevalence of COVID-19, a respiratory disease, will only bolster the health hazards posed by the anticipated inversion. Moreover, such exacerbation will likely disproportionately affect Salt Lake Valley’s underserved, less affluent and minority communities, who are likely more susceptible to respiratory illness due, in part, to geographical location and heightened exposure to ambient air pollution. There are meaningful connections to be made between the respiratory hazards of winter inversion in the Salt Lake area and the complex respiratory components of COVID-19.

Winter inversion is a natural phenomenon, as the majority of the greater Salt Lake area rests in a deep valley. However, when coupled with environmentally harmful situations such as an increased prevalence of traffic-related air pollution and ambient air pollution generated from factories, the natural phenomenon becomes hazardous (harmful pollutants and toxicants trapped in the valley with cold air). Likewise, a growing body of health and environmental research explores the differential impacts of air pollution and environmental hazards on minority communities and lower socioeconomic status communities. In essence, there is support for the notion that specific subsets of individuals are more susceptible to respiratory disease (i.e., asthma) due to air pollution exposure, based on several factors.

With COVID-19 still spreading throughout Utah, winter inversion and the heightened volume of pollutants and toxicants will negatively affect the aggregate respiratory health of the Salt Lake Valley. Also, COVID-19 will hinder certain communities’ biological responses to inversion and increased pollution.

It is difficult to discern, predict and model the exact interactions between winter inversions, the prolonged prevalence of harmful pollutants and the exacerbation of COVID-19. However, in 2012 researchers from Brigham Young University explored the connection between winter inversion and increased emergency department visits for asthma in Salt Lake County. The authors found a positive and direct link between the onset of asthmatic symptoms and substandard air quality spurred by inversion. Winter inversion brings about specific respiratory hazards each year, particularly for individuals with respiratory disease, those sensitive to harmful air quality and those enduring the most regular exposure to the valley’s pollution. It is not far off to suspect that COVID-19 will only further increase specific communities’ susceptibility to the harms of winter inversion.

There are many factors at play in this discussion, all of which are interconnected. Across the nation, health care systems continue to struggle, COVID-19 has taken shape as a political issue and Utah fights to get its COVID-19 cases under control, particularly in the Salt Lake area. The threat of COVID-19 should illuminate the need for policy to reduce the aggregate impact of air pollution and subpar air quality in the Salt Lake Valley, more broadly. It should also spur discussions to address the disproportionate effect of the valley’s air pollution on specific groups and communities.

In concert, the new hazards of COVID-19 and the existing dangers of air pollution and inversion could test Utah’s health institutions and tolerance for poor air quality. COVID-19 is revolutionizing much of modern life, and Utah, for the state’s long-term betterment, should not leave out the possibility of revolutionizing how it deals with air quality and pollution. 

Wyatt Hudgens is a third-year political science and economics student at the University of Utah. He is a member of the Solutions Scholars program, which focuses on empirically solving the pressing issues of the 21st century.