Double trouble: Wildfires and COVID-19 in the summer of 2020

13 July 2020

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CANADA – As British Columbians continue to take steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19, environmental health experts at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) are also urging people to start thinking now about how they will protect themselves during this pandemic period from the health effects of wildfire smoke.

“COVID-19 complicates things, especially for people with respiratory conditions and other chronic diseases” says Sarah Henderson, senior scientist, Environmental Health Services, BCCDC. “Air pollution such as wildfire smoke can have a negative impact on your immune system. It can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, and alter immune function, making it more difficult to fight respiratory infections such as COVID-19.”

While the best way to protect yourself from wildfire smoke is to reduce exposure and find clean air spaces, Henderson says this could be more difficult in the weeks and months ahead under physical distancing guidelines.

“During periods of poor air quality, we usually suggest that people seek cleaner air in places such as malls, libraries or community centres,” says Henderson, but access to these spaces may be more restricted during the pandemic.

Henderson says people can take additional steps to create their own cleaner air space at home:

  • Use a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms. Portable air cleaners work best when run continuously with doors and windows closed.
  • Whenever possible, use air conditioners, heat pumps, evaporative coolers, fans, and window shades to keep your cleaner air space comfortably cool on hot days. Overheating can cause serious health problems.
  • If you have a forced air system in your home, talk to your service provider about different filters and settings that can be used to reduce indoor smoke.
  • Plan ahead for upcoming smoke events: Use the BC Asthma Prediction System, an interactive online map that forecasts concentrations of particulate matter and can tell you if there is an asthma-related health risk during wildfire smoke events.
  • Avoid activities that create more indoor and outdoor air pollution, such as frying foods, sweeping and vacuuming, and using gas-powered appliances.
  • Most face masks worn to reduce COVID-19 risk provide limited protection from wildfire smoke.
What should you do if you have symptoms when it is smoky outside?
  • Exposure to wildfire smoke and COVID-19 can both cause respiratory symptoms such as a dry cough, sore throat, or difficulty breathing.
  • Anyone experiencing severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, or chest pain should seek prompt medical attention by calling 9-1-1 or going to the nearest Emergency Department. It is safe to do so.
  • If you are experiencing mild symptoms, use the BC COVID-19 Self-Assessment Tool to help determine whether you need further assessment or testing for COVID-19.
  • If you still have questions after using the self-assessment tool, contact your healthcare provider or call 8-1-1 for further guidance.
Preparing to support the provincial wildfire response

Health Emergency Management British Columbia (HEMBC), which has been helping coordinate COVID-19 Emergency Operation Centres (EOCs) across the health system, is working closely with Emergency Management BC on the development of evacuation guidelines in the context of the pandemic.

“In addition to evacuation guidelines, emergency plan development and other fire safety preparations, our staff is prepared to support the recovery phase of impacted communities,” says John Lavery, executive director, HEMBC. “We are aware that the emotional toll of an emergency or a disaster can be long lasting, so our psychosocial services teams will monitor wildfire movement throughout the season to anticipate any support needed during and after the season.”

The Disaster Psychosocial Program (DPS), provides psychosocial services upon request and with the agreement of the impacted community. The program’s volunteer network is made up of registered professionals and paraprofessionals from:

  • BC Association of Social Workers
  • BC Psychological Association
  • BC Association of Clinical Counselors
  • Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association
  • Police Victim Services of BC
  • Canadian Association for Spiritual Care
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the program is providing its services virtually. These include:
  • Psychological First Aid (PFA) telephone support: a brief telephone consultation for adults who might want support and information about how they can better cope with the stress they are experiencing during or after an emergency event.
  • Mini psychosocial education sessions for groups: A DPS volunteer can connect by phone or videoconference to provide a brief psychosocial education session for your group on managing stress, self-care and coping tips.
  • Psychosocial support at a team operational debrief: A DPS volunteer can connect by phone or teleconference to help support an EOC or Emergency Social Services team during an operational debrief. This support can be helpful should the operational debrief involve particularly stressful issues or events.
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