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Long-Term Impacts of Wildfire Smoke, COVID-19 Are Unknown

Rachael McDonald

After the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory closed Monday due to hazardous indoor air quality, no new specimens were accepted or tested. But Lane County Public Information Officer Jason Davis said COVID-19 testing is still available in the county.

Although he does not foresee testing to slow down in Lane County, they are still feeling the effects of not having the state public health lab open.

“We use the public health lab obviously, and it offsets, but we aren't dependent on it,” said Davis. “So we're able to process an adequate amount of testing during the periods of poor air quality, despite the fact that the lab is closed. It does, however, slow us down a bit. We are seeing longer wait times on certain individuals. Just generally, you know, having more tests available for public health purposes are also good.”

This comes after COVID-19 cases in Lane County increased to 878 total confirmed and presumptive cases, which is 11 more than Monday. 

Davis said the county is currently focused on testing large groups, such as University of Oregon students returning to the area. He hopes to resume community-wide COVID-19 tests when the air quality improves and their testing capacity increases. 

And as the wildfire smoke continues to blanket much of Oregon, community members are advised to stay indoors when possible in order to reduce the amount of polluted air they are breathing.

Davis said the wildfire smoke is disproportionately affecting people with preexisting pulmonary or lung issues. So those with seasonal fall allergies may feel more discomfort than usual.

“If your lungs are a filter and then you introduce a lot of pollutants for your lungs to have to filter out, then your lungs are working harder,” said Davis. “And then that can lead to exacerbated conditions for these individuals, especially individuals with asthma, emphysema, or anything where it's harder to take a breath. Those are the ones that we worry most about.”

And the accumulation of breathing wildfire smoke, on top of COVID-19, could present problems later in life. Davis said inhaling the particulate matter from the smoke has an effect kind of like smoking, but sped up.

“You're actually getting an accumulation [in] your lungs of that particulate matter,” said Davis. “Now, this is not particulate matter you can see. It's not the visible smoke in the air—it's actually microscopic and invisible. But nevertheless, it does build up in your lungs as you breathe. And that's what's especially problematic for individuals who may be younger, who are outside exercising and breathing this air in.”

Lane County Public Health officials are hoping for the best, and that the long-term effects are not as bad as they think they might be. But it is still unknown.

“We don't know the long-term effects from the wildfire smoke simply because it's never been this bad,” said Davis. “We know the long-term effects from our typical [air quality index] AQI when we have poor air quality. We know what the long-term effects roughly are for individuals who have compromised respiratory conditions, or just your general healthy community member, on a given average year. But this year is unprecedented. So it makes sense that those effects would be more severe and more long lasting.”

As health practices potentially shift while responding to the wildfires, Davis expects to see an increase in COVID-19 cases. He said “when the smoke clears, COVID-19 will still be here.”

He asks everyone to prioritize their health in addition to helping people displaced by wildfires. Community members are advised to stay indoors as much as possible to avoid breathing in the wildfire smoke.

Elizabeth Gabriel is a former KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She is an education reporter at WFYI in Indianapolis.
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