As wildfires have burned across northern California, local officials hold out hope social distancing measures will maintain the state’s recent downward trend in coronavirus cases.
Dozens of lightning-sparked wildfires ignited the evacuations of tens of thousands of Californians, forcing people to travel to other areas or stay in community shelters, which can exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus, experts say.
The poor air quality caused by the fires forced at least one outdoor coronavirus testing site in Alameda County to close and San Joaquin County outdoor testing sites to shut down at noon, county spokeswoman Krista Dommer told The Washington Post. Dommer said indoor testing sites would remain open.
Emily Crawford, a microbiology and immunology professor at the University of California at San Francisco, has already seen a drop in samples sent to her testing lab. Limitations on testing can hamper efforts to identify cases early and isolate infected people, Crawford told The Washington Post.
“Unfortunately, I think that combined with the fact that there are sadly people who are displaced and will need to go and stay with friends or stay in other communities, that’s going to facilitate spread,” Crawford said. “It’s a double hit.”
The closures of outdoor testing sites may worsen how the pandemic disproportionately impacts people with less health-care access, Crawford said.
State and local officials have urged residents in areas with poor air quality to stay indoors, as fumes from the wildfires are dangerous to breathe in, especially for vulnerable people.
While the restriction may limit the spread of the virus, it also keeps people from participating in activities normally held outdoors, where the risk of catching the coronavirus is lower, Crawford said.
Officials said they prepared for fire season in advance considering the pandemic. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said the evacuation centers he toured Thursday “demonstrably exampled” social distancing.
“You come into these centers and you see marked where people have to socially distance, and the congregate meals are done as individual meals,” Newsom said in a press briefing Friday. “And you see temperature checks before anyone walks in.”
The state’s seven-day average for new infections declined in the past week, falling to 7,037 cases Friday. California has totaled more than 650,000 confirmed cases since the first reported case at the end of February.