King County employee guidance for wildfire smoke during COVID-19

With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s even more important to prepare ahead for wildfire smoke and extreme heat this summer. Washington State is already above average for the number of fires for this time of year, and experts are forecasting a high chance of wildfire smoke in our region this summer.

Wildfire smoke may make it more difficult to fight respiratory infections such as COVID-19. It may also increase some people’s sensitivity to infection by COVID-19 and in some cases may make the symptoms of COVID-19 more severe. A previous COVID-19 infection may also make you more sensitive to wildfire smoke.

When air quality is at unhealthy levels, avoid smoky air by staying indoors as much as possible and avoid intense outdoor activities. Wildfire smoke may cause headaches and irritation of your eyes, nose and throat and poses a serious health risk for sensitive groups. People who are most sensitive to wildfire smoke are pregnant women, children, people over the age of 65, and those with heart or respiratory conditions such as heart disease, asthma, COPD, diabetes, and stroke survivors.

At work

King County services that are currently operational during this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic will remain open. We need to plan to minimize exposure to wildfire smoke, especially for employees who are in groups that are most sensitive to smoke, such as those with heart or respiratory conditions.

Because King County’s mandatory telecommuting has been extended through September 7, 2020, many employees will be working from home this summer. If you are home, take steps outlined on the wildfire smoke webpage to ensure that your home work space has clean and cool air, and follow the checklist to prepare for wildfire smoke season.

Some people need to be outdoors for their work or other responsibilities. Start planning with your supervisor and employees now. Some actions to consider include:

  • Talk to your supervisor about possible options to reduce the amount of time you spend outdoors by performing desk work or alternate work assignments on smoky days.
  • The air quality level can change quickly, so check air quality conditions regularly and if possible, adjust your schedule to avoid travel and working outdoors during periods when air quality is the most impacted by smoke conditions (keep in mind air quality is typically the worst in the middle of the day during wildfire smoke).
  • If you must work outdoors, limit time outdoors to a minimum and find a safe location to breathe filtered air while maintaining social distancing during breaks from outdoor work. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be more difficult to find public spaces to take clean/cool air breaks this year. Check with your supervisor or King County vehicle fleet manager to determine if a HEPA or MERV-13 cabin air filter can be installed in your county vehicle, so you can obtain clean air throughout the day (King County Fleet Maintenance may be able to offer installation of HEPA filters on county fleet vehicles upon request).
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • If you have medical conditions that could be worsened by wildfire smoke, consult with your medical provider and speak with your supervisor to work out the best options for your work schedule on smoke days.
  • You may be able to use accrued vacation or comp time when there is wildfire smoke instead of reporting to your designated work location. You may request leave, subject to approval by your supervisor. If you have no leave accrued, your supervisor may approve leave without pay to cover absences. Please refer to HR Bulletin 2011-0009 County Operations During Emergency Situations and Inclement Weatherto learn more.

It is not known how much protection cloth face coverings or surgical masks provide from wildfire smoke. N95/N100 masks can provide protection to some people when worn properly but can also worsen conditions for people with existing respiratory conditions. Due to COVID-19, N95/N100 masks may not be available and those available are in need by medical professionals. If an N95/N100 mask is required for your work, fit testing should be conducted to be sure you are protected when wearing the mask (for more information on mask fitting is here). To reduce the spread of COVID-19, all King County residents are directed to wear cloth face coverings in most public settings.

More information from Public Health – Seattle & King County about wildfire smoke and your health can be found here. Additional information from WA Department of Health and EPA on indoor air filtration during wildfire smoke can be found here and here.