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B.C. doctor warns of deadly ‘double whammy’ if coronavirus persists into wildfire season

Smoke from wildfires in the interior of British Columbia blanket downtown Vancouver, B.C. Sunday, July 5 2015.
Smoke from wildfires in the interior of British Columbia blanket downtown Vancouver, B.C. Sunday, July 5 2015. Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press

The head of respiratory medicine at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital says B.C. could face a deadly “double whammy” if the novel coronavirus pandemic drags into a smoky wildfire season.

Respirologist Dr. Don Sin said the presence of wildfire smoke would likely increase the death rate from the virus.

Click to play video 'Wildfire smoke a bigger health problem than first thought' Wildfire smoke a bigger health problem than first thought
Wildfire smoke a bigger health problem than first thought – Feb 6, 2019

“It will affect … all aspects of COVID-19, from the mild to the most severe,” said Sin.

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“Right now the most cited mortality is between one to two per cent from COVID 19 — that is likely to escalate during the wildfire season.”

READ MORE: Wildfire smoke can harm your lungs, your heart, and maybe even your mental health: research

Sin added that while COVID-19 disproportionately affects older people, the combination of the virus with wildfire smoke would have an impact on everyone regardless of age.

The effect of air quality on the novel coronavirus is a concern shared by UBC researchers.

In a Q&A posted Monday, lung disease expert and UBC professor of medicine Christopher Carlsten noted that elevated air pollution doubled the risk of death during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Click to play video 'UBC-based team race against time to design, build, test and distribute low-cost emergency ventilators' UBC-based team race against time to design, build, test and distribute low-cost emergency ventilators
UBC-based team race against time to design, build, test and distribute low-cost emergency ventilators – Mar 30, 2020

“The gases and particles in polluted air damage the natural defence systems that fight respiratory viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2,” said Carlsten.

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“Such pollution weakens our first line of defence — our lungs, including the protective cells and fluid lining our airways and the specialized proteins that fight against invading organisms.”

READ MORE: British Columbians share what it’s like having COVID-19

Sin said his biggest concern is that smoke-polluted air will allow COVID-19 to more easily penetrate people’s lungs, causing severe pneumonia.

“During wildfire season, there will be a greater outbreak of COVID-19 pneumonia if we don’t do things properly,” he said.

“There will be more people coming into the emergency room, more people coming into the intensive care unit, more people requiring mechanical ventilation and probably more people dying.”

That’s an impact Sin warned could be particularly challenging for rural hospitals, which tend to have fewer resources but be located closer to the fire zones.

READ MORE: Here comes the smoke: Health officials tell B.C. to prepare for new ‘5th season’

British Columbia escaped with a relatively mild wildfire season in 2019. However, both 2017 and 2018 set records, and resulted in consecutive weeks of dangerously smoky air in many communities.

Click to play video 'Tips to help cope with the smoke hanging over B.C.' Tips to help cope with the smoke hanging over B.C.
Tips to help cope with the smoke hanging over B.C – Aug 15, 2018

There is no official forecast for the 2020 season, but B.C. already recorded its first new wildfire of the year near Lytton earlier in March.

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During previous severe wildfire seasons, public health officials advised at-risk people to stay indoors and purchase an air purifier if possible.

N95-rated masks — already in short supply this year due to the pandemic — are also effective at filtering fine particulate matter from the air.

Earlier this month, the province banned open fires in high-sensitivity areas in an effort to improve air quality and ward off potential wildfires.

Meanwhile, the BC Wildfire Service is working on how it will maintain safe social and physical distancing measures while doing its work.

The service says it has already suspended in-person meetings and is reducing group sizes in training camp to try and cut the risk of transmission.

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It also pointed to changes implemented to fire camps last season that could help reduce the risk of exposure to the virus.

Those include a move away from larger, multi-person ranger tents to individual tents and the acquisition of new handwashing and shower stations.

It said it has also created new five-person crew kits which allow the deployment of smaller fire camps.