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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Conflicting precautions: Smoke brings complications to fight against COVID

Tom Robinson, who crafted these wooden crosses, picks up the mobile display Monday, May 4, outside Spokane City Hall where he had set them up, with another member of a Facebook group Stronger Together Spokane to illustrate the Spokane death toll of COVID-19. The country surpassed 200,000 deaths from the virus this week.   (JESSE TINSLEY)

Poor air quality across the state from ongoing wildfire smoke is complicating a pandemic caused by a lung-sickening virus, according to state health officials.

As fires continue to burn across Washington, officials are urging residents to take extra precautions. But the precautions for smoke inhalation and COVID-19 often conflict.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the measures that we recommend to reduce smoke are the opposite of the measures we recommend to reduce COVID exposure,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said in a Wednesday news conference.

When air quality is really bad, Lofy said she encourages people to be indoors and close their windows. Being indoors with multiple people and bad ventilation, however, can increase the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Breathing in wildfire smoke is not only harmful for those with preexisting conditions but can make symptoms of COVID-19 worse, said Lacy Fehrenbach, state deputy secretary of health.

The best way to protect yourself from both smoke and the virus is to stay indoors and keep indoor air clean and filtered, if possible, she said. It’s important to close windows and doors to reduce the amount of poor air getting inside. Ventilation is good for coronavirus, Fehrenbach said, so when air quality improves, let fresh air inside.

In Spokane and North Idaho, air quality has not yet hit an unhealthy range, said Steven Van Horn, meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

Smoke currently is pooling just east of the Cascades and up into the Okanogan Valley, he said. This is likely due to winds from the east pushing smoke west, only for it to get blocked by the mountains.

“There’s a lot of different factors that go into where the smoke is and where it’s going,” Van Horn said.

Winds are expected to switch by Friday, he said, meaning some of the smoke from the central and eastern parts of the state could move toward the Spokane and North Idaho area.

Weather will remain hot and dry throughout the weekend, Van Horn said, but will likely become cooler with a chance of precipitation next week. Although the timing of precipitation is still unknown, Van Horn said he expects it to hit the west side of the state first.

For people who do have to be outside for long periods, such as farm workers, Lofy recommends wearing N95 masks.

“Cloth masks aren’t particularly protective against wildfire smoke,” Lofy added.

State officials have not discussed whether they will be providing N95 masks to workers who might need them, but Fehrenbach said people always have the ability to put in requests at their local emergency management departments.

Lofy also encouraged people who need to be indoors in large groups, such as those who may have had to evacuate to shelters, to continue social distancing and wearing cloth face coverings.

Health officials have ‘cautious optimism’ with current COVID numbers

COVID-19 numbers across the state are decreasing. Daily case counts, hospitalization rates and death rates all seem to have hit a peak and are declining, Lofy said. The state is currently at 88 cases per 100,000 people for a two-week period, but the goal is 25 cases.

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 32 new cases on Wednesday. No new deaths were reported. There are currently 26 county residents hospitalized due to the virus.

Spokane Regional Health Officer Bob Lutz said Wednesday that they are monitoring data very closely on whether the county will see a spike after Labor Day weekend. The expectation is that every major holiday brings a spike in COVID-19 cases, he said.

The biggest difference now is the mask mandate, which has caused significant decreases in cases, he said. He is hoping masks will help the county avoid the holiday spike that would likely come in the next few weeks.

“We have cautious optimism for the next two weeks,” he said.

Across the Idaho border, the Panhandle Health District reported 18 new cases Wednesday. The district, which covers Kootenai, Bonner, Boundary, Benewah and Shoshone counties, has seven people currently hospitalized due to the virus. One more person died in the district, bringing the death toll there to 51.

‘Be very cautious,’ officials warn as schools reopen As many school districts start classes this week, state and local health officials remind families and teachers to remain cautious. Most schools in the state are distance learning, but as cases continue to decrease, many local districts might be thinking about how and when they can bring back students, Lofy said.

Current state guidance encourages distance learning if the county has virus rates higher than 25 new cases per 100,000 people during a two-week period. If a county reaches that goal, Lofy said they want districts to consider a phased-in approach, starting with youngest students first.

“Our message has been really consistent,” Lutz said. “Open cautiously, and open very slowly.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.