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COVID-19 May Deliver ‘One-Two Punch’ to Flood, Wildfire Response

The potential for a one-two punch—natural disaster plus COVID-19—has emergency preparedness teams across Canada working feverishly to be ready for complex battles that could range from wildfire smoke increasing the risk of serious lung infections, to trying to sandbag flooded rivers while keeping the imperative of social distancing.

Citing 2007 research by Chinese epidemiologists that showed significant associations between poor air quality and the 2003 SARS outbreak, scientists at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health are warning the public to expect a surge in COVID-19 infections during wildfire season, reports the Toronto Star.

“Everyone should start preparing for wildfire smoke events to ensure that we are ready should the pandemic still be raging when the fire season begins,” the researchers warned in a statement released last week. Michael Brauer, an occupational and environmental health expert and co-author of the statement, cited past research linking respiratory illnesses to air pollution.

“Infections are caused by virus and bacteria, but we know that when people are exposed to air pollution, those infections become more severe,” he said. According to the World Health Organization, this happens because small particulates, knowns as PM2.5, “can embed deep into the lungs and lead to a host of negative health effects,” notes the Star.

Children, older adults, pregnant women, and individuals with asthma are particularly vulnerable to air pollution and, consequently, to lung infections, said Brauer. He urged people to prepare by taking all possible steps to avoid getting COVID-19 in the first place, and by stocking up on required medications, including inhalers.

The B.C. government is also taking steps to inform the public, with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy warning in a March 26 advisory that “deterioration in air quality may lead to more COVID-19 infections overall [and] more cases of severe COVID-19 infections, adding further demand to our health care system.”

B.C. Wildfire Service spokesperson Jody Lucius told the Star that while wildfire activity is currently “very low”, and the wildfire season forecast for western Canada is still in the works, the department is already working to develop “protocols related to physical distancing and other precautions to support crews while they respond to wildfires.”

Flood preparedness specialists in B.C., New Brunswick, and Quebec are likewise readying for a potential double hit of COVID-19—and, in some cases, the prospect of a triple hit. Madeline Maley, assistant deputy minister for Emergency Management British Columbia, has wildfires and flooding on her radar, in addition to contending with the virus. Snowpack levels in B.C.’s interior are “very high,” she told CBC, and a rapid melt could lead to significant downstream flooding. As they wait, she said staff are working feverishly to have pandemic prevention protocols in place for everything from sandbagging to evacuation plans.

Geoffrey Downey, spokesperson for the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization, said only time will tell if the harrowing floods his region faced in 2017 and 2019 will be repeated this spring. “It’s either going to melt slowly and it’s not going to be a big deal, or it’s going to melt quickly, and then there’s going to be rain, and then everyone along the St. John River has a problem,” he said.

If a major flood does hit the river this year, the realities of the pandemic will require more people to be on call. “One of the things you fear about something like COVID-19 is absenteeism—for example, a lot of people being sick at once,” Downey explained. “Everyone has a replacement, and the replacement has a replacement, and that replacement has a replacement.”

Already hammered by the coronavirus, Quebec is warning local officials that the pandemic will necessitate an altered response if flooding occurs. In an email to CBC, Public Safety Minister Geneviève Guilbault said public officials in flood risk zones have been warned the government will be unable to open service centres for flood victims, as it has done in the past.

Standing by to aid beleaguered communities across the country are Canada’s military personnel. In a public briefing last week, reports CBC, Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance said the military will be on hand “to put in place necessary support to critical infrastructure, logistics, as well as some medical support” should communities “start to suffer multiple events, including floods, forest fires, inside a COVID environment”.