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Smoke is back, and N95 masks in short supply

Here we go again.

It took until late August, but the smoke is back. It’s being imported from California at this point — no major fires in our area — and for that we are grateful. But wildfire smoke on top of the COVID-19 pandemic is the last thing we need.

For those who may be wondering, health officials say there is not reason to think inhaling smoke makes contracting COVID-19 any more likely, but the adverse health effects on the lungs could make the disease worse for those who do contract it. And people with underlying health conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are at greater risk from smoke.

As in previous fire seasons, the best defense against smoke in the air is to stay indoors, with windows closed and air filters running. That’s not good news for people already stuck at home because of the coronavirus. And it’s especially frustrating for all those who have been enjoying outdoor activities because the risk of contracting COVID-19 is lower outdoors than inside.

And now health authorities are telling us to avoid buying N95 masks that filter out microscopic smoke particles because they are needed for health care workers treating COVID-19.

That’s just not realistic when wildfire smoke rolls in.

We understand the need to make sure health care workers have the personal protective equipment they need. And no one needs an N95 mask under normal circumstances.

A cloth mask stops infected droplets from moving from one person to another, but is less effective at preventing the wearer from infection, although there is evidence cloth masks are at least somewhat protective to the wearer. But cloth masks are useless against wildfire smoke. N95 masks, on the other hand, work well when properly fitted and worn.

If you have N95 masks left over from last year’s fire season, wear them. And if you must be outside for extended periods of time for work or other reasons, and you can find N95 masks, it’s not unreasonable to buy them if smoke levels rise.

Medical experts say surgical masks, which may be more available, still offer some protection from smoke.

State and federal officials administering the distribution of PPE should make every effort to provide N95 masks for smoke protection to those who need them. Oregon officials should have anticipated the need for masks to protect against smoke during fire season and taken steps to procure some for that purpose.

Not enough N95 masks to go around? Make more. Especially for the San Francisco Bay Area, which is overwhelmed by smoke right now.

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