SALT LAKE CITY — As wildfires across the West fill the air with smoke, doctors are warning that particulate pollution could make Utahns more susceptible to COVID-19 infection.
Dr. Cheryl Pirozzi, a pulmonologist at the University of Utah Medical Center, said that’s one more reason to be vigilant about avoiding the virus.
"Both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke are public health threats. Now we have them in combination," Pirozzi said. "So, they do have the potential to really amplify health impacts."
For most of Utah, the air quality Monday was much better than it has been over the last 10 days; however, dangerous smoke levels will return.
Pirozzi said Utahns should be especially careful about getting smoke into their lungs during the pandemic.
Particulate pollution from wildfire smoke is bad for all Utahns to breathe, and even more problematic for people with underlying lung diseases, like asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
Pirozzi said the smoke also increases Utahns' risk for COVID-19 infection and the severity of the virus. Her patients with underlying lung disease are coming in with flare-ups in their symptoms.
Right now, doctors don’t have any data on the relationship between wildfire smoke and COVID-19.
"We still have a lot of very sick people here in the hospital with COVID-19," Pirozzi said. "So I think we will be looking at that and seeing the impact of this wildfire smoke event on COVID-19."
She believes researchers will take a close look at the relationship between wildfire smoke and COVID-19 infections because there are so many other health factors that can lead to the virus.
"We may see an increase here related to wildfire smoke exposure," she said.
According to Pirozzi, research already shows that wildfire smoke irritates and inflames the lungs and alters our immune function. Wildfire smoke and particulate pollution have also previously been linked with an increased exacerbation of lung disease and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. She said that likely includes COVID-19.
"We have some research showing that particulate pollution increases risk for COVID-19 infection, and that’s a major component of wildfire smoke," Pirozzi said.
She added it will take time for researchers to find out to what extent wildfire smoke raises the risk for COVID-19. The advice for all Utahns — but especially those who are at higher risk for respiratory illness — is to protect themselves from exposure to smoke and COVID-19.
"Now, more than ever, it’s especially important to be vigilant about infection control measures like wearing masks, washing hands and physical distancing," Pirozzi said.
The majority of her patients who have lung disease are already being vigilant about avoiding the virus. She said Utahns should all do what they can to avoid exposure to the wildfire smoke and COVID-19.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Dr. Cheryl Pirozzi as Perozzi.