MISSOULA, Mont. — The new library in downtown Missoula was full of people who could typically spend a Saturday afternoon hiking, biking, or making the most of Montana’s abundant outdoor recreation. One glance at the soft haze blanketing the city and the reason was clear.
“We’re really trying to stay out of the smoke,” Charlie Booher said as his kids picked books from the piles.
Smoke from wildfires burning through dry forests and western prairies has damaged air quality this week from California to the East Coast. The polluting smoke has been thickest in the northwest, including Montana, where over the past week Missoula, Helena, Great Falls and other cities have ranked among the 10 places with the worst quality of air, according to AirNow.
The smoke and relentless heat that hit the state has caused people to seek refuge in libraries, cinemas, museums and other indoor places. In areas with low covid-19 vaccination rates where people have largely given up on masks and physical distancing, health officials fear the result could be epidemics of covid.
Adding to this concern is the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, and research suggests that covid cases and deaths increase during periods of intense forest fire smoke.
Missoula County has the highest vaccination rate in Montana, at 60%, but Whitney Kors was always aware of the risks as she took her family to the library to get out of the smoke.
“My daughter and I are still masked because she is not vaccinated,” Kors said.
She said that until her daughter, who is under 12, becomes eligible for her vaccine, her family will continue to distance themselves from others when they are out. However, health officials fear that anyone looking for smoke-free activities indoors this summer will take the same precautions if they are not vaccinated.
North of Flathead County, Joe Russell, the county health worker, said he was tracking an around 50% increase in covid cases over the past two weeks, mostly in unvaccinated people catching the virus during events.
“These are activities that take place specific to events or settings, and they take place indoors,” he explained.
Russell said his team was investigating newer clusters more closely to see if people had entered inside to escape the heat and smoke. About 6 of the 10 county residents eligible for covid vaccines have not received them, and Russell fears those large groups will get worse if more people congregate inside.
The dangers of the pandemic appear to have diminished in people’s minds as they congregate in indoor public spaces, many of which abandoned masking and physical distancing requirements earlier this year.
In Yellowstone County and Billings, Montana’s largest city, the pandemic continues to be felt in hospitals treating younger and sicker patients than they saw earlier in the pandemic. Covid deaths there also increased in early July.
Yellowstone County health worker John Felton hoped the summer would give time to increase the county’s vaccination rate by 50% before the cold sends people inside and spikes the risk of unvaccinated people transmitting covid.
“But this year has been so hot, so dry and with so much smoke, we’re afraid we will have increases a little earlier,” he said.
Across Montana, about 48% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, but Magdalena Scott of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services said the county rates ranged from about 23% to 60. %. She said that means the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are likely to vary more widely than they did last summer, when vaccines were not yet available. “We’re worried it’s going to be a long smoke season for sure,” Scott said.
There are also concerns that smoke from wildfires may increase the transmission of covid not only by leading people indoors, but also by making them more susceptible to the coronavirus.
The fine particles in forest fire smoke, known as PM 2.5, are so small that they bypass the body’s natural defenses, build up in the bloodstream, inflame the lungs, and weaken the immune system. , according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
PM 2.5 from urban air pollution and smoke from forest fires are increasingly associated with susceptibility to respiratory infections in general, but researchers rushed to investigate the same possible association with the coronavirus, a respiratory virus, since last summer.
Daniel Kiser is a researcher at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. He worked on a recently published article on an increase in covid cases in Reno during wildfire season.
“What we found was that there was an approximately 18% increase in the rate of positive tests during the period most affected by wildfire smoke,” Kiser said.
Other studies have also shown a correlation between increased particle levels and deaths from covid. Sultan Ayoub Meo of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia led a team of researchers that studied 10 counties in California where fine particle levels increased an average of 220 times during the height of the wildfire season in state last year.
“We found that the cases and deaths of covid-19 increased by 57% and 148%” at the same time, Meo said.
Meo said his team is now studying infection rates in partially and fully vaccinated people during wildfire smoke events.
University of Montana researcher Erin Landguth also expands her previous study showing intense forest fire seasons in Montana were followed by poor flu seasons months later in the fall and winter.
“Comparing bad fire seasons to not bad fire seasons, one would expect to see flu seasons three to five times worse,” Landguth said.
Landguth is compiling particle readings in the western United States to examine whether the same association exists over a larger area not only for influenza, but also for covid and other respiratory illnesses.
As evidence showing that covid cases and deaths have increased in wildfires continues to emerge, more studies are needed. However, said Landguth, we know enough to worry and advise people to protect themselves.
Back in Missoula, Sarah Coefield, the county air quality specialist, said the best thing people can do is get vaccinated, especially if they plan to search for public spaces to escape the heat and smoke. They can also create a clean air space in the home.
With about 2.5 million acres already burned this year in the United States and the drought worsening in the West, Coefield said:. “
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit news service covering health issues. This is an independent editorial program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.