I was going over my monthly Amazon subscription order a few days ago and settled on my regular haul of KN95 masks I’ve kept on hand since the start of COVID-19. I wondered if I’ll ever be comfortable taking them out of my cart.
Well, certainly not this week!
That distinctive haze and terrible burning smell across the state and up the East Coast is the result of wildfires in Canada that have put the air quality at a code red, making it dangerous to breathe. And though most people seem to have stopped pandemic-related masking — and yes, we’re still in a pandemic — it may be time to pull them back out.
“We thought we were done with them,” said Dr. Nirav G. Shah, an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who specializes in pulmonary critical care and pulmonology. “It’s the opposite of the way we were wearing them before. Now when we’re outside, we’re putting masks on, and when we go inside we take them off.”
Although “the weather is affecting all of us, even healthy people,” Shah said it’s particularly important for children; older people; those with underlying conditions such as COPD and asthma; and the immunocompromised to wear a well-fitted N95 or respirator mask. “But staying inside is your best bet in the air conditioning and rooms with good air exchange,” he said.
The air out there is all anyone’s talking about, because unlike our friends on the West Coast, we’re not used to this. Sara Hörst, who has her Ph.D. in planetary sciences and is an associate professor in the Earth and planetary sciences department at the Johns Hopkins University, spent much of the day tweeting advice and information.
“I lived out west for most of my life so I’m a lot more used to wildfires and wildfire smoke than a lot of people in Baltimore,” she told me via Twitter direct message. “I hate seeing folks jeopardize their health just because of a threat they aren’t used to.” Hörst added that “especially since most folks should have masks because of COVID, it is even easier for people to be safe!”
See? I wasn’t making that part up. I don’t mean to be smug about this, but I’ve never stopped masking indoors or on public transportation, though I’m one of very few people who seem to anymore. My son and I were two of maybe four people I saw with face coverings when we traveled to a wedding on Amtrak last weekend. That makes the smoke threat this week — which may get worse — even more alarming, because I’m afraid people aren’t prepared for this in the way they would’ve been even a few months ago. What about the unhoused in our communities? The seniors who aren’t necessarily seeing the updates on social media platforms or news websites?
My friend Lynn Filusch, a former Maryland resident who now lives in Toronto, has been dealing for days with the issue, much closer to the action. “I literally saw ash falling from the sky in Toronto. It looked like tiny snow flurries,” she said. “Today, everyone is coughing. Those who don’t watch the news say, ‘Ew! Allergies are so bad this season!’ The rest of us know the truth. The sky is on fire. … Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change can bite me.”
This smoky turn of events put an immediate crimp in my plans Wednesday. I had planned to participate in Global Running Day by pounding out 3.1 miles outside, but decided against it. Other outdoor sports, including my kid’s baseball practice, were canceled, too. And that was smart, said Peter DeCarlo, associate professor at Hopkins’ Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. “I think the best advice is to stay inside and take it easy,” he said. “No strenuous activity. This will pass and we can get back to our day to day, but in the meantime, minimize your exposure to the current air pollution levels.”
While I have an excuse not to run, I also now have confirmation that my sense of existential dread over the environment is warranted. Shah agreed with my friend Filusch: “We’re seeing climate change happening, and wildfires happening more and more frequently. It’s not happening all the time [here] but it will happen. Taking the right precautions will make all the difference in the world.”
Which means you might want to stock up on those masks again. I mean, it’s a good idea anyway. Now it’s an even better one.