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Hazardous smoke, COVID-19 pose twin dangers

Jackson County Public Health officials are warning people about the twin dangers posed by COVID-19 and wildfire smoke.

For days, the Rogue Valley has consistently been in the hazardous category for smoke due to wildfires that have destroyed lives, homes and businesses, officials said Sunday.

"We have to come out of this tragedy with the strength to rebuild," Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County Public Health official, said in a press release. "In order to do that, we have to keep ourselves safe, and that means protecting our bodies from long-term damage due to the toxic air."

Public health officials are urging people to stay aware of the risks posed by COVID-19, which can lead to severe and even deadly respiratory illness and other complications.

Jackson County Public Health reported 13 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the county's total to 967. The county has had three deaths and 71 hospitalizations tied to the virus.

Oregon reported 185 new cases across the state and five deaths in Marion, Lane and Washington counties Sunday. The state's total of reported cases is 29,337 with 509 deaths.

People should continue to wear a face covering, practice physical distancing and wash their hands.

With wildfire smoke filling the air, people should avoid going outside or wear a mask if they do.

Public health officials said wildfire smoke is a complex mix of air pollutants that are harmful to health. Exposure can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, harm immune function and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Scientific research has shown air pollution exposure and smoking worsen COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes.

"The smoky, dense air that surrounds us has tiny irritating particles (PM 2.5) so small that they can go deep into our lungs, and then into our blood, and inflame not only our airways, but also our hearts and other organs," Shames said.

People who are most vulnerable to smoke include children under age 18, adults age 65 and older, pregnant women, outdoor workers, people who have had COVID-19 and are recovering from the virus, low-income people including the homeless and people with chronic health conditions like heart and lung disease and diabetes.

To reduce smoke exposure, stay indoors. Filter indoor air and seal up cracks that allow outside air in.

If you must go outside, remember a cloth face covering that helps control the spread of COVID-19 does not protect against tiny particles in smoky air. A tightly fitting N-95 or P-100 mask offers the best protection, public health officials said.

Those may be in short supply due to first responders and medical personnel using them for the pandemic.

A KN-95 mask may be the next best option for filtering wildfire smoke particles, public health officials said.

For updates on air quality conditions in specific areas, visit oraqi.deq.state.or.us/homemap.That site is sometimes overwhelmed by traffic.

The Oregon Smoke Information website at oregonsmoke.blogspot.com also has a map showing air quality categories around the state.

Air from 0-50 is good, 51-100 is moderate, 101-150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, 151-200 is unhealthy, 201-300 is very unhealthy and 301-500 is hazardous.

Air quality monitors in Ashland and Medford have consistently been logging conditions above 300 in recent days. The monitor in Shady Cove near the South Obenchain fire has not been working.

Some areas of Oregon, including parts of the Portland metro area and Sisters in Central Oregon, have seen air quality numbers at 500 and even higher.

Smoke in the Rogue Valley could thin on Monday due to wind coming in from the northwest, leading to widespread haze and patchy smoke, according to the National Weather Service.

Tuesday’s forecast calls for partly sunny and cloudy conditions. Wednesday will bring a chance of showers, with the possibility for rain continuing through Saturday, the National Weather Service said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

The Rogue Valley is coping with decimated homes from the Almeda fire, with hazardous wildfire smoke and COVID-19 adding to the burden. John Locher/Associated Press