Fires Roil California’s Virus Fight Just as Outbreak Was Easing

By Sophie Alexander and David R. Baker | August 26, 2020

Just as California appeared to be turning a corner in its fight against the coronavirus, raging wildfires threaten to worsen the outbreak.

Blazes that rank among the largest in state history have sent thousands of residents fleeing to evacuation centers or hotels, while smoky air blanketing the San Francisco Bay Area is endangering people with respiratory trouble. That’s deepening a public-health crisis as California struggles with the most Covid-19 cases in the nation.

“This is a recipe for spreading the virus all over,” said John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “We don’t want to bring people from disparate areas together and congregate them,” he said, but “that’s what we have to do to fight these fires.”

The sudden onslaught of fire season represents a new setback for a state that was lauded for its early efforts at containing the virus, only to see cases and deaths spike over the summer.

In recent weeks, the outbreak showed signs of stabilizing, with hospitalizations down 38% from a July peak. Now, the added crisis of blazes signals even more challenges in the months ahead, with the state’s wildfire season typically at its worst in the fall.

Some 136,000 Californians are now under evacuation orders, Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, said at a news briefing Tuesday, when the case count reached 673,000. While officials have been preparing for months for the convergence of Covid and fire season, he said he wouldn’t be surprised to see new infections arise due to the evacuations.

“We’ve made a lot of gains in the past weeks as a state, and we knew wildfires would stretch us and test us again,” he said.

Beyond the congregation of people escaping flames to evacuation centers, hotels or the homes of friends or family, thousands of firefighters are gathering to fight the infernos. First responders have arrived from other states while Governor Gavin Newsom has also requested help from Canada and Australia, which has led Swartzberg to worry virus spread won’t be contained to California.

Then there are the other ways the fires complicate the outbreak — like how to keep testing sites open when it’s only safe to have them outdoors, but the air quality is so low that it’s dangerous to be outside. While smoke may keep people from large gatherings outside, there’s a risk antsy Californians will just start to mingle indoors. There’s also the question of what effect smoky air will have on a respiratory virus.

“This is especially difficult for people with substantial underlying respiratory conditions,” said Bela Matyas, public health officer of Solano County, where thousands of residents have had to flee their homes from the LNU Lightning Complex inferno, California’s second-biggest on record. “If you were to get Covid, you would have a high risk of a bad outcome.”

On top of it all, public health officers and county emergency task forces are stretched thin after months of fighting the pandemic.

“We really feel like we’ve been sprinting every day just for Covid,” said Matt Willis, public health officer for Marin County, north of San Francisco. “I think everyone’s just feeling like, ‘Really?'”

Forgetting Covid

In the emergency of a fire, avoiding the virus is no longer the first priority. Claire Burdett, 70, and her husband have been careful about keeping Covid at bay, but a mandatory evacuation forced them out of their Healdsburg home last week and into their friend’s place nearby. While they feltsafe there, the blazes have had a psychological impact on their awareness of the pandemic, she said.

“This fire is so immediate and terrorizing that we’ve forgotten about Covid,” Burdett said. “Just today we had to pick up something at a hardware store and I was 10 steps into the store before I remembered that I had to have a mask on.”

For people without another place to stay, California has taken steps including leasing hotel rooms to prevent the virus’s spread. So far, 1,480 evacuees are waiting out the blazes in 31 hotels, Newsom said in a briefing Monday.

Officials also set up 17 mass shelters, scattered across seven counties. But they operate far differently and hold far fewer people than before. Some have tents pitched indoors so that families can stay together, while staying away from everyone else. All of them screen evacuees and visitors alike, said Newsom, who recounted his recent visit to an evacuation shelter in Santa Cruz.

“Nothing’s perfect, everybody’s human, trying to do their absolute best,” he said. “But what I saw, I was very impressed.”

Vacations Halted

The fires bring one positive side for the virus fight: Many of California’s favorite summer recreation spots are now either menaced by flames or flooded with smoke, making beach parties and other outdoor gatherings impossible.

The Santa Cruz beach, a popular getaway for Silicon Valley, now lies just outside a raging fire. Lake Tahoe’s air quality was deemed unhealthy for most of last week. And Lake Berryessa, a Northern California reservoir mobbed with picnicking families just a few weeks ago, is now almost surrounded by flames and scorched hills.

Mobile-device data tracked by the analysis firm Orbital Insight found that Tahoe-area activity dropped more than 10% last weekend compared with a week earlier, before the fires began. It plunged 78% at the Santa Cruz beach and 86% at Lake Berryessa.

The fires “may lead to more spread because more people will be coughing more; they may lead to more spread because of the firefighters,” Berkeley’s Swartzberg said. “On the other hand, people are remaining in their houses now.”

Staying isolated poses a different type of challenge for people like Burdett. While her home is safe from being destroyed, four of her friends’ houses were lost. The neighbors have been communicating with each other, keeping spirits up, but it’s discouraging that, because of the virus, they won’t be able to see each other after they return.

“Once we survive this, we can’t celebrate,” Burdett said. “We can’t get together, and that’s part of healing after something like this fire, you know?”

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