The wildfire smoke alone would be enough to trigger a health emergency, but combined with the spread of the coronavirus, health experts are concerned the region downwind from the Caldor Fire could be thrust into a crisis.
The index has been around or above 300 in the Tahoe and Reno areas every day since Friday.
“What’s happening in Lake Tahoe and in Reno is very concerning,” Francesca Dominici, a researcher at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and co-author on the wildfire smoke study, told CNN, “because we know that exposure to a high level of fine particulate matter can amplify the negative effect of the pandemic.”
Kevin Dick, the District Health Officer for Washoe County, told CNN that while smoke does have an impact on cases and hospitalizations, it’s hard to attribute recent upticks to wildfires, given 40% of the community remains unvaccinated and the highly contagious Delta variant makes up 90% of its cases.
“We do know that when high concentrations of smoke are in the air, the more susceptible people are to Covid-19,” Dick said.
Dominici said she expects to see a rise in hospital admissions for respiratory diseases, including some that are not associated with Covid-19, in the next few weeks, even after the wildfire smoke subsides.
Vaccination is key to preventing the most severe outcomes of Covid-19, according to Dominici, who noted the study only accounted for unvaccinated people at a time when the more contagious Delta variant hadn’t yet emerged. And, given that more than a third of Washoe County’s population remain unvaccinated, she said the surge in pollution from wildfire smoke can be even more detrimental to public health.
“Fine particulate matter air pollution can be an additional vehicle for spreading the virus even faster,” Dominici said “Considering that we are seeing an increased risk of cases from the Delta [variant] and we already have the wildfires, that’s going to be concerning.”
Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer at the American Lung Association, who was not involved in the study, said that air pollution from wildfire smoke is likely causing inflammation in the lungs.
“The particulate matter is what leads the airways to be a very fertile ground for uninvited infection like the Covid virus to get into our airway,” Rizzo told CNN. “The immune system is only geared up to try to fight the effects of a particulate matter and now it has a virus that it has to trigger against as well.”
It’s a dangerous combination, Dominici said. “Right now, considering that we are seeing an increase in risks and cases due to the Delta variant, and we’re already getting wildfires, that’s going to be concerning,” she added.
“Even without Covid, we’ve been concerned that climate change that leads to hotter environments, and droughts, is fodder for wildfires to occur,” Rizzo said “Then you add the wildfire ash and soot to the air quality, it does make respiratory issues much more likely to occur.”
Certain communities are also at higher risk from exposure to wildfire smoke, including people with heart or lung disease, the elderly, the houseless, children and babies.
“Kids inhale way more air than us, and their respiratory system is still being developed,” he said. “So they’re way more vulnerable than adults and it could be a very dangerous situation.”
As the wildfire smoke wafts across the region, Dominici said it’s important for people in the affected areas to get vaccinated if they haven’t already.
“If they’re not vaccinated, especially for people that have existing respiratory disease and asthma or are smokers, they really need to get vaccinated as soon as possible, and to avoid exposure to fine particular matter by staying indoors with closed windows,” she said.
CNN’s Jen Christensen contributed to this report.