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Wildfire smoke could make you more susceptible to COVID-19, doctor warns

State maintaining rolling average below 400 new cases daily; third day in row with no new deaths

SHARE Wildfire smoke could make you more susceptible to COVID-19, doctor warns

Caleb Stepaniak administers a nasal swab as he and other health professionals work at the University of Utah’s Wellness Bus conducting COVID-19 testing at West Valley City’s Centennial Park on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Though Utah’s infection rate decreased in August compared to earlier in the summer, a University of Utah Health specialist warned Monday that smoke due to late-summer wildfires could bring an increased risk of lung infections, including COVID-19.

Smoke pollution alters immune function and has been linked to exacerbation of lung disease, respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations, and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, said Dr. Cheryl Pirozzi, pulmonologist at U. Health.

“We also have research already showing that exposure to particulate pollution — which is a major component of wildfire smoke — increases susceptibility to COVID-19 infection and more severe disease,” Pirozzi said.

While how wildfire smoke interacts with COVID-19 hasn’t been extensively analyzed yet, “it is likely that wildfire smoke exposure will increase susceptibility to COVID-19 infection and potentially lead to more severe disease,” Pirozzi said.

As of Monday, Utah continued to see waves of pollution drifting from California wildfires, according to a real time loop released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But particulate pollution levels were safe Monday in most areas of Utah except Duchesne County, where the level was considered moderate — meaning “unusually sensitive” people should be cautious and watch for symptoms such as coughing.

On Aug. 21, particulate pollution levels were beyond the federal threshold of 35 micrograms per cubic meter in some Utah counties at stunning levels — 47.7 in Salt Lake County; 74.7 in Tooele County; 47.5 in Weber County; 87.2 in Davis County; and 91.9 in Cache County.

All smoke in the atmosphere poses a risk, and there is not a level below which it’s “completely safe to human health,” Pirozzi said, but the higher the level of particulate pollution, the higher the health risk.

“Now that we have this overlapping of the COVID-19 pandemic and the occurrence of wildfires and bad air pollution related with that, it’s important to think about the interaction between both of these risks,” the doctor noted.

Everyone, especially those most at risk with underlying conditions or comorbidities, should be “especially vigilant” about infection control measures while wildfire smoke continues to invade our air, she said.

“Everyone should avoid activity outside in poor air quality. If possible, have a clean air space at home, maybe with a HEPA filter if possible to help avoid exposure to wildfire smoke,” Pirozzi said.

There’s a lot of overlap between who is most vulnerable to impacts from pollution exposure and who is most vulnerable to severe disease due to COVID-19, Pirozzi noted. But air pollution also poses a risk to young children, who are more susceptible to negative effects from pollution exposure than they are to COVID-19, she explained.

When someone goes into the hospital for treatment for the disease, it’s difficult to determine their sickness is due to wildfire exposure, according to Pirozzi.

But she said she’s hearing from many of her patients who have lung disease that they have increased respiratory symptoms, which they attribute to smoke exposure from local wildfires.

New coronavirus cases

For the third day in a row, Utah reported no additional COVID-19 deaths on Monday.

A relatively low number of new cases were also confirmed compared to the previous six days. Of 4,348 tests reported, 253 were positive — a 5.8% rate, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Now 52,107 people have tested positive for the disease out of 659,855 tested in Utah, an overall positive rate of 7.9%.

Though the previous several days brought a slight uptick in cases, the state has maintained a rolling average below 400, which Gov. Gary Herbert early in August challenged residents to do by September.

The rolling seven-day average for new cases is 388 per day, and the average positive testing rate is 8.9%. Currently, 125 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, nine more than on Sunday. Just 45 of those patients are in intensive care units. Of the state’s nearly 1,300 ventilators, 179 are in use.

Just under 3,100 people have required hospitalization for the disease in Utah since the outbreak began.

Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 stands at 407.

Nearly 44,000 of the state’s cases are considered recovered after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses, meaning about 8,100 still have active infections.

On Monday, University of Utah officials said the hospital urgently needs blood donations as fewer are donating due to the pandemic.

“People with blood types O+, O-, and A+ are especially needed. By donating just once, you can help up to three patients,” officials said.

Those interested are encouraged to call 801-584-5272 to make an appointment to donate at one of ARUP Laboratories’ two blood centers.

The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 23,987; 1,558 hospitalized; 230 deaths.
  • Utah County, 11,001; 502 hospitalized; 46 deaths.
  • Davis County, 3,892; 220 hospitalized; 23 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 3,598; 213 hospitalized; 27 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 3,346; 216 hospitalized; 29 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 2,577; 132 hospitalized; 11 deaths.
  • Summit County, 847; 53 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • San Juan County, 667; 89 hospitalized; 28 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 692; 33 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 639; 25 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 511; 29 hospitalized; 3 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 207; 17 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • Southeast Utah, 143; 6 hospitalized; 1 death.