Officials Fear Fires Will Increase COVID-19 Transmission

It may be a few weeks before the extent is fully known, but Sonoma County health officials believe the Bay Area’s wildfires are likely to increase transmission of COVID-19.

The county has been hit hard by the virus and for months residents have been told repeatedly to stay home as much as possible, maintain at least six feet of distance from anyone not in their household and wear a mask.

But thousands have been forced from their homes by wildfires and are now staying in hotels, RV parks or crammed in with friends and family. Some may not have had time to pack their usual supply of masks and sanitizing products before fleeing.

"I think whenever we have people who are in contact with one another that don’t normally live together, that there’s definitely a risk of transmission of COVID," said Sonoma County health officer Dr. Sundari Mase. "So we’ll have to wait to see what the impact of this displacement and evacuations are on our COVID pandemic and the numbers."

The fires have also spread smoke and ash over much of the Bay Area, causing people to cough and wheeze more than usual.

"As the smoke irritates people’s airways, they’re more likely to cough. So if they actually have COVID and maybe even would’ve been asymptomatic, they may now have the symptoms of cough and be more likely to spread COVID," Dr. Mase explained.

Sonoma County already has a higher positivity rate than the state average and its infection rate is nearly three times what the state wants to see for counties to get off the watch list.

As evacuation restrictions are lifted, emergency officials caution against rushing back into neighborhoods too quickly without the proper PPE, which these days includes a face mask and hand sanitizer.