Recent fires, heatwave may have hindered testing, leading to lower positivity rates

As California faces a trio of disasters — wildfires, dangerous air quality and, of course, a global pandemic — this week’s statewide briefings provided a silver lining.

As of Tuesday, Sept. 15, the COVID-19 test positivity rate in the Golden State is 3.5%, reaching its lowest rate since officials began monitoring the virus’ impact in March.

But public health officials attribute the dip in the positivity rate to the recent heatwaves and fires currently plaguing the state.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of Los Angeles County Public Health, said in a news briefing that the combination of the heatwave and the smoke left from the fires worsened the air quality, meaning that fewer people are leaving their homes.

“We are, in fact, somewhat challenged about getting good data because we’ve had both extreme heat and we’ve had the fires that have created unhealthy air conditions. What that’s led to, unfortunately, is a lot less testing,” Ferrer said.

The inopportune arrival of California’s yearly fire season comes at a time when the state is at odds with the prospect of reopening more of the economy and relaxing some of its safer-at-home mandates.

School districts across the state remain closed, but businesses like restaurants, grooming services and other public spaces are slowly reopening. But according to California’s color-coded tiered re-opening system, 30 counties remain in the purple category (including LA, San Bernardino and Ventura counties), which is the most restrictive tier (i.e. the counties that are still high-risk of mass viral transmission).

Ascending in rigidity, 17 counties are now in the red category (including Orange, San Francisco and San Diego Counties), nine are in orange and two are in yellow.

LA County’s positivity rate is at 8%, more than double the state’s overall positivity rate.
As of Tuesday, LA County has reported 255,049 total positive cases and 6,273 deaths related to the COVID-19 (excluding Pasadena and Long Beach).

According to LA County Public Health, 70% of all cases concern people under the age of 50, putting into focus the virus’s impact on all age groups.

“Tragically, we are reporting another death in person who was under 29 years old,” Ferrer said on Tuesday. “Younger people not only are the majority of individuals infected and infecting others, but also can experience devastating consequences themselves. Nearly 450 COVID-19 deaths have occurred among individuals under the age of 50 years old. This is why it is important for everyone, including younger residents to take precautions every time they leave their homes and to get tested if they have been exposed to the virus.”

The pervasive fires occurring across the state have complicated the already daunting task of mitigating viral transmission. The worsening air quality brought on by the fires adds more urgency for not just protecting the general public from the virus, but protecting those who are vulnerable to respiratory ailments.

As previously reported in the Asian Journal, COVID-19 attacks the respiratory system and those who experience maladies related to breathing are particularly vulnerable to the virus’s severe effects.

Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist and assistant professor in Health Metrics Sciences at the University of Washington, and Mary Creasman, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters wrote in an NBC News OP-ED that COVID-19 and the California wildfires are a joint crisis that threatens public health.

“The state is now experiencing some of the worst air quality in the world as a result of the fires, and that is particularly worsen given emerging evidence that exposure to air pollution may increase the likelihood of both being infected with and dying from COVID-19,” Gupta and Creasman wrote. “We need to be taking urgent action to improve air quality and address the climate crisis along with our other efforts to contain and treat the coronavirus.”

They added that the coronavirus pandemic should serve as a wake-up call for legislators to move forward with environmental solutions.

But Gupta and Creasman lamented the lack of action being done at the federal, state and local levels to combat the growing threat of climate change, which scientists the world over agree is a manmade disaster.

Of its 100 proposed rollbacks of federal environmental protection mandates, the Trump administration has completed 68, including Obama-era emissions rules for power plants, a major contributor to air pollution.

“We deserve leaders who listen to scientists and understand the clear connection between public health and the environment,” they wrote. “We need to fight for a better climate, not despite the current global crisis, but because of it.”

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