Saturday, October 24, 2020
Oct. 24, 2020

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Clark County health officials see COVID-19 ramifications from air pollution

Amid improvement in air quality, wildfire smoke may have left people more susceptible to complications from coronavirus, health officer says

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian Metro Editor
Published:
2 Photos
A plane visible above Washougal makes its way down to Portland International Airport. An overnight storm leading into Friday made Vancouver's air quality significantly better.
A plane visible above Washougal makes its way down to Portland International Airport. An overnight storm leading into Friday made Vancouver's air quality significantly better. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As hazardous air leaves Clark County and healthier air begins to settle in, the county’s highest-ranking health official has concerns about the COVID-19 ramifications that come from two weeks of heavy pollution.

Hazardous air sealed many people inside for much of the last couple of weeks, so it might seem like coronavirus transmission would also trend down during that time period. However, Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick thinks any benefits gained from less community activity are offset by the many downsides from hazardous air.

“The negatives of the air conditions far outweigh the positives from people not having gatherings,” Melnick said.

Outside of the health consequences that manifest from breathing in polluted air, such as flare-ups of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Melnick said that pollution from wildfire smoke makes people more susceptible to complications from COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns on its website that wildfire smoke irritates the lungs, causes inflammation, impacts the immune system and makes people more prone to lung infections such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Melnick said there are other concerns that also come into play from prolonged hazardous air during a pandemic.

He said he’s worried that fewer people went to get tested over the smoky days because they stayed inside to protect themselves from smoke.

“When the air gets better, those folks who could have been tested are now out and about,” Melnick said.

Another concern, which is timely as fall and winter approach, is that more people might have gathered indoors during the last couple weeks, which is an easier environment to spread COVID-19 in than the outdoors.

“People gathering indoors is actually much worse than gathering outdoors,” Melnick said.

Clark County reported 19 new COVID-19 cases on Friday ending a week that saw 182 new cases overall and no new deaths.

The last death from COVID-19 was reported on Sept. 11. To date, 53 deaths have been attributed to the disease in Clark County.

The new cases brings the county’s total to 3,075 cases to date. The number of active cases, which shows positive cases still within their 10-day isolation period, rose to 152.

The updated numbers come as Clark County Public Health reported an uptick in the percentage of tests coming back as positive earlier this month.

The percentage of tests coming back positive have fluctuated between 3 percent and 3.5 percent, according to Public Health. But in the most recent time period, Aug. 30 through Sept. 5, that positivity rate increased to 5.12 percent, with 206 positive results out of 4,022 tests performed.

As of Sept. 5, the county had 2,818 positive tests out of 93,971 tests administered, with a 3 percent positive rate.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 held steady at 24 on Friday, as did the number of people hospitalized awaiting test results, at 13.

The weekly total of 182 new cases is consistent with totals from the previous two weeks but still higher than weekly totals in August.

Air quality approaching normalcy

Improved air quality arrived just in time for the weekend, but some unhealthy air is still present. After a rain and thunderstorm blew through Clark County early Friday morning, air quality improved significantly.

On Thursday morning, Southwest’s Washington’s air was 383, still considered “hazardous.” By Friday, Vancouver’s air quality for fine particulate pollution (PM 2.5) from wildfire smoke improved into the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category.

At 6 p.m. Friday, the city’s air quality level had fallen to 50, which is classified as “good” air quality.

In Yacolt, air quality was at 43 as of 6 p.m., also in the “good” range.

Levels at 100 or below are considered “moderate,” and levels of 50 and below are considered “good.”

On Friday morning, the Southwest Washington Clean Air Agency extended its air pollution advisory through Saturday. Conditions are expected to gradually improve throughout the weekend, but some smoke and unhealthy air may linger.

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