• Published on Sep 23, 2020

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. Have you been watching these wildfires on the news? What impact is that having on our health, and is it worsening the COVID pandemic? To help answer these questions, I've asked Dr. Mary Prunicki, a senior research scientist at Stanford, to join me. Dr. Prunicki, thanks for taking time to talk today.

MARY PRUNICKI: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: You know, we see these images of massive, you know, fires, you know, in-- in various areas of the country. Can you tell us how bad it is right now?

MARY PRUNICKI: Well, um, in the Bay Area, where I am at, we had a record-breaking 30 days straight of Spare the Air days. So that's never happened before.


MARY PRUNICKI: Um, when we had the Paradise fire two years ago, that was the second worst, uh, air quality that we have experienced, and that was 12 state-- straight Spare the Air days. So the amount of-- of wildfire smoke and fires that we're experiencing, um, in California, Oregon, Washington is just-- it's unprecedented.

JOHN WHYTE: How is this impacting people's health? You're an expert in-- in asthma care and allergies. Uh, wha-- what are you seeing in patients?

MARY PRUNICKI: So, um, we are looking at, uh, right now hospital admissions at Stanford. Um, and we are seeing increases in what you would expect, what research has shown when people are exposed to wildfires. So increase in respiratory disorders, such as asthma, increase in cardiovascular disorders, such as heart attacks, arrhythmias, increases in strokes, um, and, um, increases in-- in admissions for renal, um, cases. There was recently a paper associating wildfire exposure with people on dialysis and increased mortality rate.

JOHN WHYTE: I mean, you look at these images, and it appears that the sky is orange. How can that possibly be good, either for patients or for the environment?

MARY PRUNICKI: Uh, it's not. It's, uh, it's-- it-- it's been a-- a surreal experience, um, waking up and finding an orange sky, and having it be this eerie color all day long and-- and overcast for so long. People having to experience that type of environment, um, compiling on top of the COVID, um, pandemic, it-- it's just, um-- it's, uh-- it's-- it's been difficult, I think, for everybody to deal with.

JOHN WHYTE: [INAUDIBLE] I want to get to that in terms of its impact on COVID. So here you have, you know, smoke-- smoke inhalation, fire. You know, people are coughing. We know that spreads the virus. People can't stay outside, so you need to go inside. So that doesn't help the virus. Testing centers can't be open. We've seen a tremendous drop in the number of tests that are done, you know, in the regions of wildfires. What do you foresee as both the short-term and the long-term impact on coronavirus?

MARY PRUNICKI: Well, we-- you know, we know that, when you're exposed to wildfire smoke, it does impact your immune system, just like, you know, typical air pollution exposure. And so, um, we expect to see probably increases in, um, COVID cases where we've had this elevated amount of smoke for so long. And that's consistent with studies that have come out that have associated elevated air pollution with increased COVID, um, mortality rates. And that's been shown, um, globally.

JOHN WHYTE: What can patients do? Um, I mean, you're not gonna be able to really to go outside. What other things can they somehow incorporate?

MARY PRUNICKI: First of all, if you-- if at all possible, stay indoors. Um, any amount of smoke exposure is not good. So, um-- and even if you have the mask, it's not foolproof. You know, it doesn't filter gases or, you know-- it only filters particle. And that's if you have a perfect seal, you know, to get the-- the, uh, you know, maximum use out of it. N-95 masks are hard to get.

Um, surgical masks will-- will help you somewhat. You obviously don't have the seal and you don't have the right filtration, but it's better than nothing. And then I believe cloth masks come in as a third. You know, so it's better than nothing, but the best is to stay indoors.

Um, if you are indoors, if you are able to use an air purifier, if you don't have a well-sealed home, you know, use it. Even have one room in your home that's fairly well-sealed, and use an air purifier there. Um, and, you know, do what you can to keep your immune system healthy. Sleep well, all the usual things.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, for some people, tell us what an air purifier is. Is it similar to a humidifier? Help us understand. Some folks may not know what that is. I'm not sure I know what it is.

MARY PRUNICKI: OK. So an air purifier-- and there's resources from the EPA for California, they have a Air Resource Board that has nice guidelines on purchasing an air purifier. What it does is it, um, you know, sucks the air in and filters the particles. And-- and so, you know, it-- your air in that room, um, recirculates through this device.

It looks like a-- looks like a fan, um, but it has, you know, typically a HEPA filter in it. Um, and so if you're following the guidelines for the correct square footage and keeping that room, you know, fairly well-sealed from the outside, you can improve your air quality.

JOHN WHYTE: Can I ask you about the impact on pets? We should be keeping our pets inside, as well, is that right?

MARY PRUNICKI: Um, that's correct, as much as you can. Um, you know, it's-- it's the same concept that this-- this, uh, particulate matter in the smoke causes irritation and-- and beyond. And so, um, as much as you can, pets should also stay inside.

JOHN WHYTE: What does the future hold? I mean, we've been seeing more and more wildfires. You know, we see the impact. We're talking about, you know, air quality all the way in New York as a result of the wildfires. What's the future, Dr. Prunicki?

MARY PRUNICKI: Um, well, you know, we know that the amount, the size, the duration of wildfires are increasing. Um, and at least in our area, there's typically no rain until December. So we have a stretch of period to go before there's any relief in sight.

Um, I would say, you know, we know, you know, prior, the particulate matter from smoke, wildfire smoke, you know, may have contributed 20%, 25% of the, um, you know, pollution in the atmosphere. Now, it's increasing, especially in certain areas, like, you know, the West Coast. Um, some areas now are contributing up to 50% particulate matter.

Um, and that's, um, you know, that's contributing to our global problem. Um, smoke can travel very far. Um, and it's a-- it's a huge, huge issue that we-- there's going to have to be many solutions to.

JOHN WHYTE: Dr. Prunicki, I want to thank you for taking time today to share your insights. And certainly, we all need to be vigilant, you know, if we live in an area around wildfires, but even if not, you know, we need to be able to continue these precautions that we're doing against the coronavirus.

MARY PRUNICKI: Right. Right. It's especially important now, I think, with the smoke.

JOHN WHYTE: And thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte.