Utah’s smoky skies can make it easier to catch COVID-19, doctors say

The air is unhealthy for everyone. Doctors urge people to stay indoors.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Smoky skies from wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington affect the visibility and air quality in Salt Lake City, on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

The smoke that suddenly overwhelmed northern Utah on Friday morning can cause everything from asthma to heart attacks and strokes — and speed the spread of COVID-19 — according to doctors.

The pollution from West Coast wildfires increases the risk of viral infections “including COVID,” said Denitza Blagev, a pulmonary physician at Intermountain Healthcare. So having the smoke invade Utah “in the middle of the delta [variant] surge is really unfortunate.”

“There’s now good data that worsening air pollution increases the transmission of COVID,” agreed Robert Paine, chief of the division of pulmonary at University of Utah Health. “So it is one more reason to … stay out of the bad air.”

And the air has been quite bad in parts of Utah on Friday — some of the highest levels of PM 2.5 particulates ever recorded in the state, more than triple the federal standards. And that’s a danger to everyone.

“This is among the worst air pollution we’ve had this summer,” Blagev said. “So, at this point, the air quality is unhealthy for everyone.”

Blagev said she was surprised “just how quickly” air quality changed on Friday morning, from green to red air quality in a matter of minutes. It became “really unhealthy for everyone — not just children, not just older people, not just sensitive groups, but really the PM 2.5 is high enough that even people that don’t have underlying disease would be at risk for complications.”

PM 2.5 refers to tiny particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter — too small to be filtered out by your nose, so they get “all the way down into the working part of the lung where blood and oxygen come together,” Paine said. “And when they get down there, they can do lots of damage” to not just the lungs, “but to the heart, brain, uterus and other organs.”

The particulates differ depending on what’s burning, “but if you take wildfire smoke and look at the chemical composition, it’s an enormous long list of substances that are well known to cause health problems,” Paine said.

The surgical and cloth masks many people have been wearing during the COVID epidemic will not filter out PM 2.5 particles, according to the doctors. Only N95 masks will.

The particles can cause sudden attacks of asthma, bronchitis or pneumonia in people who are already suffering from lung disease. They can cause heart attacks or strokes in people already suffering from heart disease. “And we know that air pollution is bad for babies in utero,” he said.

Blagev and Paine both advised Utahns to stay indoors until pollution levels improve.

“It’s particularly important for older individuals, for kids and young people, and for those with pre-existing health conditions,” Paine said. And it’s not just small children who can be affected, but kids in middle school and even high school.

“The high school football team should not be out practicing in this. Hopefully, they got their practice done early this morning, before this got so bad, and are off the field.”

Biagev advised that Utahns “reassess” any plans they have for the weekend that involve hiking, biking or outdoor exercise of any kind. While Utahns have become accustomed to going up into the mountains to escape pollution during winter inversions, that’s not the case now — because the smoke is coming up over the mountains and down into the valley.

“You’re not going to get above the smoke level,” she said.

The greatest danger is to people with pre-existing conditions — it won’t suddenly cause coronary disease or asthma in healthy people. But there can be long-term effects for otherwise healthy people.

“Don’t think that because you’re not in a sensitive group, the air pollution won’t affect you. It will,” Blagev said.

That’s why no one should be exercising outdoors. “Even if you’re fully healthy,” Paine said, “This is not the day to be exercising outside.”

And be careful about exercising indoors if other people are around.

“We’re also in the middle of a [COVID-19] delta [variant] surge,” Blagev said. “So … I would not recommend exercising indoors with other people without masks either.”

While Utahns can fight pollution in the winter by driving less and not burning wood in their fireplaces, there’s not anything they can do about smoke from West Coast wildfires blowing into the state.

‘”As the climate has changed and we have fewer really hard cold snaps during the winter, that helps us for our wintertime inversions,” Paine said. “At the same time, the changing climate makes it that much more rich for these summertime events.”