That's the argument from researchers behind a new nationwide study that found coronavirus patients living in counties with high levels of air pollution were more likely to die than those living in less-polluted areas before the pandemic.
Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed data from more than 3,000 counties with confirmed coronavirus deaths around the country. They found a statistical link between long-term exposure to PM 2.5 — dangerous air particles so small they can enter the bloodstream — and higher death rates from the disease caused by coronavirus.
- “We know fine particulate matter affects the respiratory system. And we know that covid-19 kills by affecting the respiratory system. So we know, by science, that getting [the disease] is like adding gasoline to the fire,” Dr. Francesca Dominici, a Harvard biostatistician who led the research, told Power Up.
- “If you're breathing polluted air and your lungs are inflamed by the disease, you're going to get very, very sick,” she said.
Dominici says the study offers big lessons for the Trump administration, which has been aggressively moving forward with easing restrictions on air pollution even during the pandemic. Dominici says coronavirus makes environmental rollbacks an even more “unwise and irresponsible decision.”
- “Now is not the time to be rolling back environmental regulations,” Dominici said.
- “We cannot go back and clean the air of the past,” she added. “But in the future, we can target and make sure that in the counties that have high level pollution, we take environmental measures so that the disease doesn't kill as many people.”
- The study's conclusion states its data underscores “the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the covid-19 crisis.”
The study found the impact of tiny pollution was huge: Take Manhattan, for example. If the city had lowered its average particulate matter level — by just one single unit per cubic meter — over the last two decades, the study found, there would have been “248 fewer covid-19 deaths among a total of 1905 deaths up to April 04, 2020.”
- Big cities overall seem to fare worse: “The District of Columbia, for instance, is likely to have a higher death rate than the adjacent Montgomery County, Md. Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, should be worse than nearby Lake County, Ill. Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta, is likely to suffer more deaths than the adjacent Douglas County,” per the New York Times's Lisa Friedman, who reported earlier this week on the study's findings.
- Why: “Most fine particulate matter comes from fuel combustion, like automobiles, refineries and power plants, as well as some indoor sources like tobacco smoke,” Friedman writes. “Breathing in such microscopic pollutants, experts said, inflames and damages the lining of the lungs over time, weakening the body’s ability to fend off respiratory infections. Multiple studies have found that exposure to fine particulate matter puts people at heightened risk for lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes and even premature death.”
- The study can also help guide the allocation of resources within the U.S.: “In the short term, Dr. Dominici and other public health experts said the study’s finding meant that places like the Central Valley of California, or Cuyahoga County, Ohio, may need to prepare for more severe cases of covid-19,” Friedman writes.
- These findings coincide with the news that coronavirus is “infecting and killing black Americans at a disproportionately high rate, according to a Washington Post analysis of early data from jurisdictions across the country,” The Post's Reis Thebault, Andrew Ba Tran, and Vanessa Williams report. Research also shows that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by air pollutants and are more likely to face a “pollution burden.”
The government's view: The Environmental Protection Agency says it is “committed to protecting public health by improving air quality and reducing air pollution,” an agency spokesperson told Power Up. Covid-19 “is a new and evolving situation and scientists are working hard to understand what variables are linked to transmission and vulnerability.”
Yet climate experts have slammed recent steps the Trump administration has taken that could reduce air quality, as my colleague Dino Grandoni has reported. At the end of March, the EPA announced a relaxation of environmental rules, telling petrochemical plants, power companies and other major industries that “they could determine on their own if they can report their operations’ air and water pollution levels during the virus outbreak.”
- The spokesman tells Power Up that the “EPA’s temporary enforcement guidance is not a blanket waiver of enforcement. All regulated entities are expected to comply with all applicable requirements and EPA does not expect any increase in PM emissions.”
- Not the only move: The administration announced last week it was loosening Obama-era mileage standards for cars, pickup trucks and SUVs, one of Trump's biggest environmental rollbacks so far. And the EPA is currently in the process of reviewing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards — or pollution standards — for particulate matter.
Social distancing is having an impact: Pollution has declined in major cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York, as social distancing forces people to stay at home and everyday life comes to a standstill. It's happening globally, too: Italy and China have also seen a decline in air pollution and lowered greenhouse gas emissions amid efforts to stop the spread of the disease. This could, in theory, help reduce stress on people's lungs — but the air quality is likely to get worse again as restrictions are lifted and the economy resumes, unless other steps are taken.
The researchers want more data: More research is needed understand the impacts on a global scale, including whether covid-19 was exacerbated in Wuhan, an industrial city in China, due to air pollution.
- “It's why we made our statistical analysis code available — I'd love to analyze the data in a consistent matter,” Dominici said. “Attacks on the respiratory and cardiovascular system are pretty much the same around the world.”
At The White House
TRUMP POISED TO RENEW PUSH TO REOPEN THE ECONOMY: “[The president] is preparing to announce as soon as this week a second, smaller coronavirus task force aimed specifically at combating the economic ramifications of the virus and focused on reopening the nation’s economy, according to four people familiar with the plans,” Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Yasmeen Abutaleb scoop.
- The economic task force will be a mix of top administration and private-sector officials: Newly minted White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is likely to lead the group. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and national economic adviser Larry Kudlow will also join, our colleagues write. “The economic task force will not meet every day, like the large one, and is expected to have a more informal feel, with many of the meetings held over the phone and as in-person briefings with the president.”
The goal is to open as much of the country as possible by April 30: The larger coronavirus task force's strict social distancing guidelines are set to expire at the end of the month. Trump had pushed to reopen the country by Easter (this weekend), but backed down after strong urging from health officials.
- Trump refused to give a date: “But I don't think we're going to be very far behind,” he told reporters at the daily briefing. Attorney General William P. Barr was more blunt on Fox News later in evening, “I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have, and not just tell people to go home and hide under their bed, but allow them to use other ways — social distancing and other means — to protect themselves."
On The Hill
PHASE 4 TALKS STALL: Later this morning, “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is moving forward to bring the $250 billion small-business increase up on the floor on Thursday without Democrats’ priorities included, essentially daring Democrats to object,” Erica Werner, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim report. Beyond that it's unclear what will happen to a plan that White House hoped would be on Trump's desk by the weekend.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to the GOP to come to table and is prepared to wait them out: “I have said very clearly: What they are proposing will not get unanimous consent in the House. There is no reason they cannot come to the table and see the value of what we are offering,” Pelosi told Robert Costa. She and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer want to change the GOP proposal and add an additional $250 billion for hospitals and states.
- But Pelosi wouldn't say whether she would encourage Senate Democrats to object today: “Pelosi said she always avoids meddling in the affairs of the other congressional chamber but reiterated that she finds Mnuchin’s request deeply flawed,” our colleague writes.
- She is also pledged to continue to fight to get funding for states to vote by mail: “Shameful. Shameful and discouraging,” Pelosi said of what happened in Wisconsin this week. “We would want it to have some of what we had in our first bill, which was same-day registration, direct mailing of the ballot to everyone who is registered to vote — issues like that, that facilitate vote by mail. Again, that’s the discussion for the next bill, which we’re by and large ready for.”
How we got here: “Trump and [Mnuchin] are seeking the extra small-business money after banks fielded more than 400,000 loan requests in less than a week for firms trying to navigate the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic,” our colleagues write.
THE GENERAL ELECTION BEGINS: “With the withdrawal of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) from the Democratic race, [former vice president Joe Biden] and [Trump] have no remaining opponents but each other,” the New York Times's Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin report. “Yet the actual activities of the campaign remain largely on hold, frozen by the coronavirus outbreak that has brought most other aspects of the country’s public life to a standstill.”
Trump and his campaign offered a preview of two-pronged approach: Biden pulled off his comeback by being the choice of the Democratic Party establishment a group that disrespected Sanders's populist movement and also by “embrac[ing] the far-left policies of the anti-establishment Sanders and is indistinguishable from the self-described socialist,” Michael Scherer and Toluse Olorunnipa report.
- That strategy is based on two key audiences: “One is a competition for the ideological center of the country, run through the tony, tax-skeptical suburbs of key swing states that rejected the GOP in 2018. The second is a fight for the mostly working-class populism of the left, which has rejected the establishment politics of both national parties,” our colleagues write.
- Trump has also tried to goad Obama off the sidelines: “I'll tell you, it does amaze me that President Obama hasn't supported Sleepy Joe. It just hasn't happened,” Trump told reporters. “When is it going to happen? When is it going to happen? Why isn’t he? He knows something that you don't know, that I think I know, but you don't know.”
WHAT'S NEXT FOR BERNIE AND HIS MOVEMENT?: In the immediate future, Sanders has pledged to support Biden. "[But the senator added that] he will remain on primary ballots in an effort to collect enough delegates to influence the party’s platform in negotiations this summer,” Sean Sullivan, Matt Viser and David Weigel report.
Biden and his team immediately started rolling out appeals: The former veep released a lengthy statement praising Sanders and his campaign. His campaign also “campaign expects to announce several policy agreements with Sanders starting [today], on topics including health care and student loans,” our colleagues report.
- The lessons of 2016 loom large: “[Biden] passed on numerous opportunities to call on Sanders to drop out — even when it was clear Sanders had no realistic shot of winning the nomination. [He] even made a courtesy call to the Vermont senator last week to basically apologize for moving ahead with his running mate selection,” Politico's Marc Caputo reports.
- A reminder of how we got here: “What began as the most diverse presidential field in history, featuring more than two dozen candidates, finished as one white man in his 70s handed off the nomination to another,” our Post colleagues write. “Biden’s own prospects had been written off not long ago, before a bracing and dramatic surge in the March primaries driven in part by the establishment closing in to embrace him.” In case you were wondering, the South Carolina primary was just 40 days ago.
As for the long term, all eyes are on AOC: “Among some activists, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a rising star who helped rescue Sanders’s candidacy with an endorsement after his heart attack, is seen as a potential successor,” our colleagues write. “But some hard-liners are less sold on Ocasio-Cortez and view her as too conciliatory.”
- The Chamber will help her primary challenger: “The traditionally conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce is planning to endorse a primary challenger to progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a move that represents a dramatic intervention in a Democratic race,” Politico's Alex Isenstadt reports. Former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera is challenging the freshman congresswoman.
In the Media
WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
Meadows is off to a rocky start: “Trump’s new chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has escalated tensions in the White House with a swift series of staff changes that have drawn complaints from some in the West Wing about his management style, according to people familiar with the matter,” Bloomberg's Jennifer Jacobs, Jordan Fabian, and Josh Wingrove report.
- The former congressman is already involved in the coronavirus response: “[He is] calling Republican governors who have held out against issuing stay-at-home orders in their states to ask them to implement the policies immediately, according to two people familiar with the calls," Bloomberg reports. "The president has said such decisions are up to state leaders and has not publicly criticized those who decline, who are all Republicans.”
Trump faces bipartisan scrutiny for ousting Intel IG: “Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who for decades has championed congressional oversight, is drafting a letter to the president seeking that explanation about Michael Atkinson. Grassley’s effort has been endorsed by Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Democrats in the chamber,” Seung Min Kim, Josh Dawsey, Tom Hamburger and Mike DeBonis report. Atkinson, as the intelligence community's inspector general, defied the administration in alerting Congress to a whistleblower complaint about Trump's actions regarding Ukraine that later help spark the president's impeachment.
Former acting Navy secretary's travel to Guam cost taxpayers over $240k: “For [acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly], the visit resulted in his resignation, after he created an uproar by insulting the former commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, who had raised concerns about how the Navy was handling a coronavirus outbreak on the warship,” Dan Lamothe reports.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, mayor Bill de Blasio face criticism for acting too slowly: “From the earliest days of the crisis, state and city officials were also hampered by a chaotic and often dysfunctional federal response, including significant problems with the expansion of coronavirus testing, which made it far harder to gauge the scope of the outbreak,” the Times's J. David Goodman reports.
- Key graf: "[Thomas R. Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] said that if the state and city had adopted widespread social-distancing measures a week or two earlier, including closing schools, stores and restaurants, then the estimated death toll from the outbreak might have been reduced by 50 to 80 percent."
Linda Tripp dead at 70: “Linda Tripp, a key figure in the presidential sex scandal that nearly brought down the administration of Bill Clinton over his affair with onetime White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, leading to the president’s impeachment in 1998, died April 8,” Matt Schudel reports.
Everything you wanted to know about DIY face masks: Our colleagues Bonnie Berkowitz and Aaron Steckelberg have you covered. Yes, even if you can't sew.