The smoke and unrelenting heat pummeling the state have driven people to seek refuge at libraries, movie theaters, museums and other indoor venues. In areas with low covid-19 vaccination rates where people have largely abandoned masks and physical distancing, health officials are concerned the result will be covid outbreaks.
Adding to that worry is the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, and research suggests that covid cases and deaths increase during periods of intense wildfire smoke.
Missoula County has the highest vaccination rate in Montana, at 60%, but Whitney Kors was still mindful of the risks as she took her family to the library to get out of the smoke.
“My daughter and I are still masked because she’s not vaccinated,” Kors said.
She said that until her daughter, who’s under 12 years old, becomes eligible for her shot, her family will continue to distance from others when they’re out. However, health officials worry that not everyone seeking out smoke-free activities indoors this summer will take the same precautions if they are unvaccinated.
To the north in Flathead County, Joe Russell, the county health officer, said he’s tracking a roughly 50% increase in covid cases over the past two weeks, mostly from unvaccinated people catching the virus at events.
“These are activities that are happening specific to events or settings, and they are indoors,” he explained.
Russell said his team is more closely investigating new clusters to see if people went inside to escape heat and smoke. About 6 of 10 county residents who are eligible for covid vaccines have not gotten them, and Russell is worried these large clusters could get worse if more people gather indoors.
The dangers of the pandemic appear to have waned in people’s minds as they gather in indoor public spaces, many of which dropped masking and physical distancing requirements earlier this year.
In Yellowstone County and Billings, Montana’s largest city, the pandemic is still being felt in hospitals that have been treating younger, sicker patients than they saw earlier in the pandemic. Covid deaths also spiked there in early July.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton hoped the summer would provide time to boost the county’s 50% vaccination rate before cold weather sends people indoors and increases the risk of unvaccinated people transmitting covid.
“But this year has been so hot, so dry and with so much smoke, we are concerned we’re going to have increases happening a little earlier,” he said.
Across Montana, about 48% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, but Magdalena Scott with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services said county rates range from about 23% to 60%. She said that means case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths are likely to vary more widely than they did last summer, when vaccines weren’t yet available. “We are concerned that it’s going to be a long smoke season for sure,” Scott said.
There are also worries that wildfire smoke could drive up covid transmission not just by driving people indoors, but also by making them more susceptible to the coronavirus.
Fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke, known as PM 2.5, is so small it bypasses the body’s natural defenses, building up in the bloodstream, inflaming the lungs and wearing down the immune system, according to the Centers for Disease Control a
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