Study: Wildfires Were Responsible for Tens of Thousands of COVID Cases

Researchers from Harvard University have concluded that a spate of wildfires along the west coast between March and December 2020 led to an extra 20,000 coronavirus infections and 750 COVID-19 deaths.

The cause of the increased infections and deaths was exposure to smoke which, among other things, impairs the function of white blood cells and undermines the body’s immune response. The researchers specificially pointed to a type of pariculate matter known as PM2.5.

“These results provide strong evidence that, in many counties, the high levels of PM 2.5 that occurred during the 2020 wildfires substantially exacerbated the health burden of COVID-19,” according to the authors. The same researchers concluded last year that long-term exposure to air pollution was tied to COVID-19 death rates.

Butte County, California and Whitman, Washington had the highest percentages of total COVID-19 cases attributable to PM2.5 levels, the study found. Calaveras County, California had the highest percentage of deaths attributable to PM2.5. 

The latest findings could have significant implications for the Delta variant, which has been spreading alongside wildfires in Northern California.

“I think the wildfires will have the same, if not worse impact on COVID-19 cases and deaths among the unvaccinated,” the study’s senior author Francesca Dominici told The Seattle Times.


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