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Have N95 masks? Wear them in good health

It was only a matter of time.

July is nearly over, and we have seen the first noticeable wildfire smoke drift into the valley. So far, it’s relatively mild, because it’s coming from fires in northeastern California. Klamath Falls is taking the brunt of it, with air quality readings pushing into the unhealthful range.

Our turn likely will come sooner or later. Fire danger is now extreme, and hot, dry weather is expected for at least the next two weeks.

Smoke on top of COVID-19? That’s not a good combination. Health officials warn that particulate pollution from smoke will make COVID-19-like symptoms worse for those who contract it, and could increase the fatality rate.

For those just trying to go about their daily lives, an immediate concern is whether they can find N95 masks designed to filter out fine particulates. Those masks were already hard to come by during smoky fire seasons before the pandemic. Now, supplies are limited and prices higher because they are needed to protect health care workers who must treat COVID-19 patients.

Authorities are recommending that the general public not use N95 masks for that reason. We beg to differ.

Heavy smoke in the air is a public health risk, and if people have N95 or N100 masks left over from previous fire seasons, they should use them. If they choose to buy them, we don’t blame them.

Of course health workers should not be deprived of the protective equipment they need. But Southern Oregon residents deserve protection, too.

Local and state governments should do whatever is necessary to secure masks that will protect against smoke particles. The federal government — we’re talking to you, Congress — should encourage more production, both for health workers facing COVID and for the general public dealing with wildfire smoke.

Some health officials discourage the use of certified masks for smoke because they don’t work at maximum efficiency unless they are properly fitted. That’s true, but some protection is better than none.

It’s also true that the best defense against heavy smoke is to stay inside with windows closed and air filters running. That’s especially important for high-risk groups. But many people still need to go out, whether it’s to work or to buy groceries and other necessities. When they do, they deserve to be able to protect themselves, if only partially, from smoke in the air.