If you don’t need to be outside this week, don’t be.
Smoke from wildfires across the state carries tiny particles that can damage the lungs, especially for those with existing respiratory conditions.
Public health officials and air quality experts also say staying indoors is the best way to protect yourself from the haze, the heat and exposure to COVID-19.
But for people who work outside or lack access to housing or transportation, the virus and the hazardous air raise questions about what protection to use, and when. Here’s what the California Department of Public Health advises:
- Wear a cloth face covering if you’re going to be within six feet of others to limit the spread of COVID-19. Cloth masks and surgical masks do not protect the wearer from fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke.
- Wear an N95 respirator if you need to be outdoors in smoky air for an extended period of time.
- N95 respirators provide protection from both wildfire smoke and viral particles, but should be reserved for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.
- N95 respirator masks must be properly fitted to be effective, and don’t usually work on people with facial hair
- People with lung or heart conditions should consult their doctor before using an N95 mask, which can make breathing more difficult.
- Masks with one-way vents can reduce inhalation of smoke particles and viral particles for the wearer, but do little to protect others from COVID-19. Cloth coverings are recommended for preventing COVID-19 spread.
- Children, pregnant women, older adults and people with heart and lung problems are especially susceptible to smokey air.
- The best way to protect yourself from both wildfire smoke and COVID-19 is to stay indoors.
Cloth face coverings recommended for COVID-19 do little to protect the wearer from fine wildfire particles, experts say, but respirator masks that serve that function are being reserved for health workers. Hot weather adds another complication — people without air conditioning may need to get outside or open a window to cool down, even if doing so exposes them to smoke.
Solano County Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas says there is “no perfect solution.”
“We’re facing a very messy reality with multiple things happening, and in many cases the best solution for one is the wrong solution for the other,” he said.
When the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise laid a thick haze over Northern California skies, some cities and counties provided free N95 masks to residents, leaving them at fire stations and distributing them to homeless camps. When fitted correctly, these respirator masks can block the fine particulate matter in smoke from entering the respiratory tract.
But they’re also the go-to coronavirus protection for health care workers.
“Right now is not the time to go out and buy those because obviously we need those for COVID, for the health care providers to take care of all the patients that are coming into the hospitals,” said Dr. Vanessa Walker, a pulmonologist at Sutter Roseville Medical Center. “So, it really is just stay indoors.”
Hospitals are still stockpiling N95 masks to prepare for COVID-19 surges, and many facilities are sanitizing and redistributing them for repeated use.
Outdoor laborers such as farmers and construction workers should have access to respirator masks on the job, if an employer determines it’s a necessary protection under state guidelines. California passed new regulations last year laying out what employers must do to protect employees when wildfire smoke hangs in the air.
“If control measures like use of water, use of tents and other isolated areas don’t work, there may be circumstances where a true respirator might be necessary,” said Susan Wiltsie, a D.C.-based attorney specializing in labor law compliance. “But you can’t just hand somebody an N95. They have to be medically evaluated and fit-tested, and you can’t have any facial hair.”
Some N95 masks include one-way vents, which allow the mask-wearer to breathe more easily while wearing the respirator. But Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis, says this could worsen the spread of disease.
“The masks that have a vent, they don’t restrict the flow when they exhale, they only restrict the flow when you inhale,” he said. “So that’s great for protecting you from the smoke, but it doesn’t protect the community from the COVID that you may be exhaling.”
For anyone going out and about, public health officials still recommend a regular cloth face covering, which prevents coronavirus particles expelled by the wearer from getting out in the air and infecting others. These coverings also provide some protection for the wearer.
The cloth coverings also provide protection from ash, which can cause nose and throat irritation, but they do not prevent the wearer from inhaling the fine smoke particles that can damage the lungs, experts said.
Matyas, with Solano County, says this is something to consider if you’re planning to wear a cloth mask outside while doing something like walking to the grocery store.
“If you can walk while wearing a mask and not have to breathe more heavily, then feel free to wear the mask,” he said. “But if wearing the mask is going to make you breathe more heavily then that’s actually harmful for you, because you’ll be inhaling a lot more smoke than you would have without wearing the mask.”
He said in some cases it may make more sense to walk without the covering and then don it when you arrive somewhere where there are other people.
Find instructions for how to sew a cloth face mask here, and information about cleaning them here.
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