CWU researchers study COVID-19 spread during wildfire season in Yakima County

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — Central Washington University public health professors and students are moving into the second year of a research project looking at how poor air quality during wildfire season might affect the spread of COVID-19 in Yakima County.

“We’re really looking at the human behavior aspect in this pandemic and how easy or difficult it might be for people to continue to do COVID-19 prevention when air quality presents the challenge that it does,” Associate Professor Tishra Beeson said.

Beeson said some of the best prevention strategies for COVID-19 are to get outside, open windows and not gather indoors with multiple households. However, those strategies have been harder to implement this summer, due to people increasingly staying indoors to avoid record-high temperatures and poor air quality caused by wildfire smoke.

Yakima ranked fifth worst in the nation in 2021 for short-term particle polution, according to the latest State of the Air report from the American Lung Association. If people are crowding together indoors, Beeson said that could present a higher risk for transmitting the virus.

“We have to examine what prevention strategies are reasonable — or even feasible — in this current environment and consider how to support certain individuals in the community who are less able to implement them,” Beeson said.

The research team includes a half-dozen graduate students and three faculty members, including Beeson and Associate Professor Casey Mace Firebaugh, who serve as the project’s principal investigators.

“This is a real chance for our students to get some interesting field experience, but also give back to their own community and help them feel like they’re really a part of that,” Beeson said.

The project started last summer, when CWU received a two-year, $200,000 grant from the American Lung Association. The second installment of the grant funding went into effect July 1.

“The survey findings from 2020 provided researchers with a valuable snapshot, but having a second year of funding will allow them to better understand how air quality and COVID-19 are affecting people who live in rural communities like Sunnyside, Toppenish and Granger,” a CWU news release said.

Beeson said the research isn’t definitive yet, but what they’ve seen so far from analyzing phone survey data from last summer indicates that environmental factors during the summer could lead to increased community spread.

“A year is a long time for people to keep up with COVID-19 prevention behaviors, especially if they were a major deviation from their lifestyles before the pandemic,” Beeson said. “We have already learned a lot, but the situation continues to evolve — and so do people’s inclinations to participate in certain behaviors.”

The research team is asking community members to fill out an anonymous online survey at Keys2Prevention.org.

It will take about 20-25 minutes of your time, and will discuss things like your current knowledge and behaviors around COVID-19. We may ask you some questions about whether or not you or someone in your life has experienced symptoms of the COVID-19 disease. This information will not be shared outside of the research team in a form that can identify you. You will have the opportunity to share your email or mailing address so we can share more information about COVID-19 disease with you, if you choose.

The survey is available in English or Spanish and open to anyone living in Yakima County through the end of August.

“Since COVID-19 has become such a polarizing topic, it can be difficult to find people willing to talk to researchers,” the release said. “The team hopes the anonymous online survey route will help more people feel comfortable sharing their experiences.”

RECENT NEWS HEADLINES FROM THE KAPP-KVEW NEWS STAFF: