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COOS BAY — Shoppers at the Coos Bay Farmers Market on Wednesday wandered through bakery and produce booths in apocalyptic conditions: Bits of ash from statewide forest fires fell to the ground as customers wearing COVID-19 face masks scanned tables splashed with sunlight tinted orange from the thick smoke above.

Meanwhile, health officials in Coos County have a simple recommendation in the face of multiple risks to the respiratory system.

"The best thing you can do is stay home," said Eric Gleason, assistant director of Coos Health & Wellness.

The air quality along the South Coast Wednesday, as well as across the state, was dismal as fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the western United States. Air in Coos Bay and nearby communities was rated as "unhealthy" and "hazardous" by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality throughout the day Wednesday.

The DEQ also issued an air quality advisory Tuesday, warning those on the coast and in other parts of Oregon to avoid time outdoors if possible and use air filters in homes and buildings.

Aside from staying home if possible, Coos Health & Wellness recommend those in the path of smoke keep windows closed, use high-efficiency particulate air filters and turn ventilation systems onto the recirculation setting.

But for Holly Johnson, who sold flower and plant arrangements from the Moss, Twigs & Such booth at the market Wednesday, staying home wasn't an option when preparing for the market the night before.

"I had to be in (the smoke) because I was in my garage," Johnson said.

Johnson said that one benefit of requirements to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is that masks keep out some smoke as well — but according to Gleason, mask-wearing isn't quite that simple. Masks can be effective in preventing both COVID-19 transmission and wildfire smoke inhalation, but only if the right type of masks are worn correctly. 

A cloth or surgical mask can be effective for blocking COVID-19, but not for keeping out heavy smoke.

An N95 mask, a type of respirator, is effective against wildfire smoke if worn correctly with a proper seal around the outside, according to Coos Health & Wellness. But those masks, which have been in short supply nationwide since the pandemic began, should be saved for first responders and healthcare workers unless absolutely necessary, Gleason said.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease that's killed hundreds of thousands globally, causes coughing and shortness of breath. Taking in too much unhealthy, smoke-filled air can cause the same symptoms, Gleason said.

"The fact of the matter is that wildfire smoke like this can cause similar symptoms to COVID," Gleason said.

Those symptoms are especially pronounced among vulnerable populations, like the elderly and people with respiratory conditions.

The similarity between the two conditions means people should be vigilant when experiencing symptoms and go to the hospital only when necessary, Gleason said. People experiencing coughing, shortness of breath or other symptoms should call their healthcare providers before going in, and go to the emergency room only when necessary.

Coos County reported a total of 95 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 31 presumptive cases for a total of 136 cases, as of Tuesday morning data. There have been no new cases for the past four days following three outbreaks, including five confirmed or presumptive cases at Bandon Pacific Seafood in Charleston. The other two outbreaks have not been named, though one of them was identified as a church, though no location given. 

Gleason did say Coos Health & Wellness expects a surge in about a week or so following the Labor Day weekend. There were COVID-19 case surges statewide following the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends.

No individuals in the county have died from COVID-19, and none are currently hospitalized with the virus, according to Coos Health & Wellness.

Statewide, the percent of individuals who test positive for the coronavirus is trending down, though over 28,000 people have tested positive and nearly 500 have died to to the virus or complications with it.

Reporter Zack Demars can be reached at worldnews3@countrymedia.net.

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