September has been a difficult month for the state of California.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rolled into its sixth month, a record-breaking wildfire season erupted, with fires growing throughout California. In the Los Angeles area, the Bobcat and Lake Fires have burned over a combined 86,000 acres of land, covering L.A. County in a blanket of hazy smoke. The unhealthy air quality prompted the South Coast Air Quality Management District to issue a series of smoke advisories, advising residents to stay indoors.
During a time when going outside has become students' main way of escaping the tedious stream of Zoom meetings and screen time, being told to stay indoors may seem entirely out of the question. But with the current unhealthy, in some cases even hazardous, air quality, many students have begun to weigh the risks of outdoor exposure.
Marissa Hansen, a USC senior majoring in communications, has often avoided leaving her apartment due to the pandemic, but ever since the fires started, she’s opted to leave less and less. “Before the fires, I would use the open day in my schedule to go to Malibu as a sort of escape from being indoors all day,” Hansen said. “Now I’m scared to go sit on the beach because I feel as if it’s not worth exposing myself to all the smoke.”
Hansen, who has dealt with asthma since childhood, has started taking precautions to help keep her apartment free from the smoke. From keeping air purifiers running in multiple rooms to limiting her contact with the outdoors, she’s dedicated to staying safe — from the smoke and COVID.
“Personally, they’re pretty equally scary. If I go outside my asthma could act up from the smoke but if I get COVID the same thing could happen and I could end up on a ventilator,” Hansen said.
USC Keck Professor of Clinical Medicine Richard Castriotta warns that the inflammation caused in your lungs by PM2.5 -- miniscule particles from the smoke contamination -- can overwhelm your immune defenses, putting you at a disadvantage in fighting the coronavirus. Castriota explained that these fine particles are more dangerous than larger forms of particle pollution because they don’t get filtered out in the nasal passages and will penetrate deep into your lungs. In some cases, the particles can even reach your bloodstream. “If the small particles get down into the lower airways, they may actually create an inflammatory process,” Castriotta explained.
When our immune defenses are busy reacting to the inflammation from the particulate matter, it can overload them, reducing our ability to ward off the infection. It would “be more likely that [it] will get into our lung cells and cause disease,” Castriotta said.
Many people are worried about the risk of outdoor COVID exposure while the air quality is so poor. Castriotta explains that outdoor activities such as exercise can heighten one’s risk level. “If the air pollution is very high, especially with the PM2.5 levels, then the more you exercise, you’re actually magnifying the amount of pollutants that you’re bringing into the lung.”
Noah Shulkin, a USC junior majoring in human biology, said that living in a region where the smoke pollution is higher has made getting out of the house almost impossible. “It’s been frustrating that I can’t go outside, especially because exercise was usually the one time of the day when I would not be in my house.” Shulkin said.
Shulkin, who has been quarantining with his family in the suburbs of Sacramento, has taken staying home quite seriously and has been limiting his outside exposure. Despite his efforts, Shulkin still feels the effects of the wildfire smoke within his home.
“Sometimes someone will open a window at night and I can feel the effects the next day with a sore throat or slight shortness of breath.” Shulkin described. “Luckily, I am in good health, so I can bounce back from these symptoms pretty well.”
As fires continue to rage across the state, officials still advise residents to stay indoors as much as possible. People who already have N95 masks without valves are recommended to wear them when going outside to avoid exposure to both the PM2.5 and the virus. However, those without an N95 respirator should avoid stockpiling them as healthcare workers have a greater need for them.
See more fire coverage by Annenberg Media here.