When Disasters Collide – FACS COVID-19 Update #17


While in the continued grip of a global pandemic and the need for the public to follow significant preventative measures, the US is faced with the onset of other natural disasters. On the West Coast and along the Continental Divide there are a rash of wildfires that have erupted this month, and on the East and Gulf Coasts hurricanes and severe weather storms have threatened several states. The steps taken to prevent injury or worse during these events may not always be in perfect alignment with the COVID-19 preventative measures. Social distancing becomes a challenge when people are evacuated to shelters. Managing building ventilation systems to control for viruses in aerosols and at the same time keeping wildfire smoke out of a building can be complicated. Evacuating from your home is tough under any circumstances but doing so in the world of COVID brings new factors to the evacuation planning process.

Hurricanes and COVID-19

Planning for hurricane season and other potential disasters can be stressful, and with the 2020 hurricane season here during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be more complicated. Knowing how pandemic prevention can affect disaster preparedness and recovery, and what you can do to keep yourself and others safe is important. To assist the public in preparing for these dual threats, public health and emergency response professionals have prepared advice to help the public safely prepare, evacuate, and shelter during severe storms while protecting themselves and others from COVID-19. Following are some tips and considerations to think about this year during hurricane season as it relates to COVID-19, as well as links to CDC information sites.

Prepare for the Hurricane Season

Prepare for Evacuation Orders

  • If you may need to evacuate, prepare a “go kit” with personal items you cannot do without during an emergency. Include items that can help protect you and others from COVID-19, such as hand sanitizer, hand soap, disinfectant wipes (if available) and enough masks for each person that can wear them (excluding those under 2 or with conditions such as difficulty breathing that make wearing a mask a greater health risk).
  • Have several ways to receive weather alerts, such as National Weather Service cell phone alertsNOAA Weather Radio, or (@NWS) Twitter alerts to ensure you are well informed.
  • Find out where your local public shelter is and if it is open, in case you need to evacuate your home and go there. Your shelter location may be different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you need to go to a disaster shelter, follow CDC recommendations for staying safe and healthy in a public disaster shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • If available, consider staying with family or friends to reduce the need to stay in a shelter. Remember to follow all COVID-19 safety precautions while staying with others regardless if you know them well or not. Consider if anyone staying in the home is someone who is at higher risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19, including older adults or people of any age who have underlying medical conditions.
  • Follow guidance from your local public health or emergency management officials on when and where to shelter.
  • Follow safety precautions when using transportation to evacuate. If you have to travel away from your community to evacuate, follow safety precautions for travelers to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

Staying Safe after a Hurricane

In addition to following guidance for staying safe and healthy after a hurricane, note that:

  • You should continue to follow preventive actions to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, like washing your hands and wearing a mask during cleanup or when returning home.
  • If you are injured or ill, contact your medical provider for treatment recommendations. Keep wounds clean to prevent infection. Remember, accessing medical care may be more difficult than usual during the pandemic.
  • After a hurricane, it’s not unusual for rats, mice, and other pests to try to get into your home or building. Be aware that with restaurant and commercial closures related to COVID-19, there are already reports of increased rodent activity as they try to seek other sources of food. Follow recommendations for keeping pests out of your home.

Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19

During wildfire events, public health recommendations include staying indoors as much as possible and limiting the amount of outside air from entering a building; which is in stark contrast to common recommendations to limit risk of COVID-19 transmission, which include increasing the amount of outside air into buildings. Wildfire smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases, vapors and fine particles that can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that cause COVID-19. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, preparing for wildfires might be a little different this year. Some of the same recommendations for preparing for a hurricane, such as checking on locations and availability of shelters, apply to preparing for evacuation due to a wildfire. Following are some tips and considerations to assist the public in knowing how wildfire smoke can affect you and your loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic and what you can do to protect yourselves.

Prepare for the Wildfire Season

Protect Yourself from the Smoke During COVID-19

  • The best way to protect against the potentially harmful effects of wildfire smoke is to reduce your exposure to wildfire smoke, for example, by seeking cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces. Keep in mind that while social distancing guidelines are in place, finding cleaner air might be harder if public facilities such as libraries, community centers, and shopping malls are closed or have limited their capacity.
  • Limit your outdoor exercise when it is smoky outside or choose lower-intensity activities to reduce your smoke exposure.
  • Create a cleaner indoor space by considering the following:
    • Ensure all windows and doors are shut.
    • Consider increasing the efficiency of your air filters (HEPA or MERV-13 or higher) in your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Note: ensure your system is capable of withstanding the added pressure to the system before doing so.
    • If you have a forced-air system in your home, adjust your HVAC settings to “Recirculate” and “On” rather than “Auto” to continually filter the air in your home.
    • Install a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms to assist in filtering the indoor air.

Due to the stark contrast in recommendations between wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19, it is important that a building risk assessment be performed to assist in identifying controls that consider both wildfire smoke exposures and COVID-19. This may include comparing the risks based on occupancy load, occupant health risk factors (“sensitive groups”), activities performed, dominant wind directions, and filtration efficiency.

Know the Difference between Symptoms from Smoke Exposure and COVID-19.

  • Some symptoms, like dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing can be caused by both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19.
  • Learn about symptoms of COVID-19. Symptoms like fever or chills, muscle or body aches, and diarrhea are not typically related to smoke exposure.
  • If you have severe symptoms, like difficulty breathing or chest pain, immediately call 911 or the nearest emergency facility.

Stay informed. Know where to find information about air quality and COVID-19 in your area.

Knowledge is Key, Planning is Paramount

Planning for an evacuation can be stressful under any circumstances. Responding to an evacuation order during a pandemic can be even more so. Having as much of your plan in place before the order comes is important but even with that, some decisions may need to be made in the final minutes before you evacuate. Tracking changing conditions frequently in the lead up to an evacuation can be valuable.  Below are a few additional steps to consider:

  • Pay attention to local guidance about updated plans for evacuations and shelters, including potential shelters for your pets. Call your local public health department ahead of the evacuation and ask about the conditions at shelters, and any special requirements that may be in place.
  • Whether you decide to evacuate or are asked to evacuate by state or local authorities, evacuate safely. Follow traffic rules and have an alternate evacuation route just in case.
  • When you check on neighbors and friends before evacuating, be sure to follow social distancing recommendations (staying at least 6 feet from others) and other CDC recommendations to protect yourself and others.  Use phones or online meeting apps to check in regularly.
  • If you need to go to a disaster shelter, follow CDC recommendations for staying safe and healthy in a public disaster shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’re here if you need us

At Forensic Analytical Consulting Services, Inc. (FACS), our passion is protecting the health of people, families, communities and the environment through assessment, education and prevention. We are standing by to provide our services as needed or to simply answer your questions. Please do not hesitate to contact us for assistance.

Additional Resources