Fueled by changing climate patterns, wildfire season has become longer and more destructive throughout the western United States.  Power disruptions, extreme heat and smoky air are challenging conditions in the best of times, but this year the global pandemic has added to the stress. When COVID-19 began spreading across the nation, disaster preparedness and response organizations created and distributed plans that are now being tested in real life. Here’s a bite-sized breakdown on a couple of key public health recommendations. 

Symptoms to Watch For

There are many symptoms individuals might experience that may lead them to suspect COVID-19. Since the respiratory system is affected in both instances, some symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure overlap.  

Our recommendation: The CDC has a coronavirus self-checker widget that allows you to plug in your symptoms and get recommendations for next steps. And as always, any time you have signs and symptoms that are concerning to you, it is important to discuss them with your healthcare provider. 

Wearing a Mask

A large percentage of individuals infected with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic (have no symptoms) and may be unknowingly spreading the virus to others. Like other contagious respiratory infections, it is spread most often through respiratory droplets that leave your mouth and nose when you sneeze, cough, talk and even breathe. The use of a cloth mask can help slow the spread of COVID-19. The cloth mask has not been proven to protect the person wearing the mask, but it stops those respiratory droplets from traveling to another person who may breathe them in and become infected.

Cloth face coverings do not protect you from pollutants in wildfire smoke. Those particles are so small they can still get into your respiratory tract and can even enter your bloodstream to cause damage.   Before the pandemic, the recommendation was to avoid exposure if at all possible and to wear an N-95 mask if exposure is unavoidable. However, like other personal protective equipment, N-95   masks are in short supply and currently being reserved for people who are already sick with COVID-19 and healthcare workers who interact with those patients so you will be hard-pressed to find them at a store. 

Our recommendation: Continue wearing a cloth face covering when outside your home and unable to maintain social distancing to protect others from potentially spreading COVID-19 unaware. And since N-95 masks are reserved for pandemic use, take any reasonable precautions you can to prevent exposure to harmful wildfire smoke, including staying indoors and tracking local air quality conditions (visit www.airnow.gov or download the mobile app) to avoid unhealthy air if you have to be outside.

Protecting Yourself at Home

There are some steps you can take to protect the air in your home from wildfire smoke intrusion. Keep your windows and doors closed to reduce the amount of smoke entering your home. It’s important to have access to local alerts and health messages, so be sure to seek out information on how to sign up to receive notices from your local authorities. 

It’s a good idea to designate a clean room in your home where you can concentrate on cleaner air during days with unhealthy smoke may be seeping into your home. You may need an air purifier with a HEPA filter to reduce harmful particles. 

Our recommendation: Preparation is key to protecting your family, especially if you live where wildfire risk is high. Visit Lung.org/wildfires to learn more ways to prepare.

Protecting Yourself During a Forced Evacuation

Be prepared to evacuate if local authorities determine it is necessary. Having a plan of where you will go and what you will take with you will help reduce some of the stress of leaving on short notice. Make a checklist and have it ready so you don’t forget necessary items like medications. It is best to relocate to an area where you can maintain social distancing measures more easily when possible. Don’t forget to bring your face covering and hand sanitizer with you.

Our recommendation: Leave when directed and have a list of essential items. Take reasonable precautions to maintain social distancing measures. 

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