An aircraft releases a special fire-fighting compound over one of the wildfires aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., May 16, 2014. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher Johns Marine Corps Air Station Miramar/3rd Marine Aircraft Wing)

Critical Havens from Wildfire Smoke Can Spread COVID-19 Among Vulnerable Groups

Emergency managers should prepare for the possibility of COVID-19 transmission in shelters where people with breathing difficulties may congregate for relief from smoky air during the upcoming peak wildfire season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

According to Cal Fire, warmer spring and summer temperatures along with earlier snowmelt and reduced snowpack have been creating more fuel in forests as the wildfire season begins earlier in the year and ends later than usual.

In its outlook through August issued Friday, the National Interagency Fire Center noted that this month — “the transitional period into the Western Fire Season” — is expected to be average as far as fire risk, but the Pacific Northwest and Northern California are expected to see “above normal significant large fire potential” beginning to develop in June.

To help vulnerable residents such as the homeless and those especially affected by drifting wildfire smoke, including people with lung conditions such as COPD and asthma or those with heart conditions, some cities have established clean-air shelters such as recreation centers, libraries and auditoriums with strong air filtration systems.

The CDC guidance notes that “exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to eye and respiratory tract irritation, exacerbations of existing respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, and premature death,” and that while clean-air shelters provide a necessary haven for high-risk populations the “congregation of people in cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces can potentially provide a route for the transmission of SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, among individuals using the facilities, staff, and volunteers.”

CDC suggests conducting verbal screenings for coronavirus symptoms and/or temperature checks among admittance to cleaner-air shelters and periodically after that. Shelters may need to set aside separate spaces — either rooms closed off within a designated shelter or a separate shelter location altogether — to house people showing COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.

The physical distancing rule of six feet between people should be applied even among those in the shelters not showing any coronavirus symptoms.

“Consider separation of furniture and creating partitioned spaces for individual family units (families who live together do not need to maintain physical distancing in a cleaner air shelter or cleaner air space). Floor markings, such as with tape, can be used to mark distances between partitioned spaces. Smaller facilities can limit the number of individuals using the cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces, in accordance with state and local guidelines that limit the size of gatherings,” CDC said. “This could lower capacity, so consider setting up a larger number of smaller cleaner air shelters or cleaner air spaces. Communities might consider partnering with closed businesses, such as movie theaters, that might serve as alternative cleaner air spaces.”

The air filtration that provides a respite from wildfire smoke — a minimum of central air conditioning with filtration that is medium or high efficiency, as well as portable air cleaning systems to meet the needs of those housed within — “should not be relied on for controlling the spread of COVID-19.”

“If separate spaces in the same building are needed to separate individuals with and without COVID-19 symptoms, it is important to ensure that air does not flow from the space sheltering individuals with COVID-19 to the space sheltering others,” the guidance continued.

Cleaning and disinfecting facilities every day is critical as asymptomatic people can spread the virus, which can live for several days on non-porous surfaces such as counters.

Education should be provided in English and other languages as needed about cloth face coverings, hand washing, cough etiquette and the rules of physical distancing. Sick staff members or volunteers should be sent home.

“If available, provide COVID-19 prevention supplies onsite at cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces. Have supplies, such as soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol, tissues, and trash baskets on hand. Staff, volunteers, and individuals using the cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces should wear a cloth face covering, or if supplies are available, be given a clean disposable facemask,” CDC said.

CDC suggested that fewer people may need the wildfire smoke shelters if there was a temporary ban on utility shutoffs during wildfires in order to keep home air conditioners running.

CDC has also issued guidance for general population disaster shelters, hot-weather cooling centers, correctional facilities, daycare centers and more.

As of Friday, there were 1,062,446 cases of COVID-19 reported in the United States, including 30,787 new cases, and 62,406 deaths from the virus.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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