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Central Washington University

CWU Awarded $100,000 to Study Effects of COVID-19, Poor Air Quality

Tuesday, September 29, 2020


The Central Washington University Department of Health Sciences has been awarded a $100,000 research grant by the American Lung Association (ALA) to study how COVID-19, poor air quality, and certain socioeconomic factors have affected underserved populations in the Yakima Valley during the pandemic.

The ALA’s Emerging Respiratory Viruses Research Award will help members of the CWU Public Health faculty and a team of student researchers conduct surveys of Yakima County residents about the combined effects of the virus, air quality, and limited economic resources. The study’s primary aim is to understand how these factors work together with individual prevention behaviors to limit the spread of COVID-19 across the target population.

“Our early research has shown that there’s a significant synergy between COVID-19 infection rates, the environmental impact of air quality, and the socio-demographic vulnerability of that region,” said Casey Mace-Firebaugh, an associate professor of public health. “If you overlay a map of concentration of COVID-19 cases, income disparity, and the concentration of particulate matter in the air in Yakima County, there are some emerging patterns we want to examine further.”

Yakima County is home to about 50% Latino residents, and more than 60% were considered essential workers during this year’s statewide shutdown. The region was hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, exhibiting the highest rate of COVID-19 infection of any county on the West Coast for a period of time this spring. Air quality is already of concern to the Environmental Protection Agency, and has been especially hazardous this month due to wildfire smoke.

Mace-Firebaugh and her CWU colleague, associate professor Tishra Beeson, hope their research will provide the ALA with valuable insight into why poor air quality and infectious disease have combined to create such a unique challenge for public health officials.

“There’s emerging evidence that says this (COVID-19) isn’t just an acute illness,” Beeson said. “We’re closely watching to see how it affects longer-term lung function and inflammation, and when you overlay the particulate matter and exposure to other environmental hazards with infection rates in Yakima County, it really is a perfect storm.”

Mace-Firebaugh added that new data shows patients with severe cases of the virus may need three to 12 months to resume full lung function. Since a large portion of the Yakima County workforce performs outdoor agricultural work, they are at a higher risk because they could be exposed to contaminated air for hours at a time. 

“It may not be something obvious like a mass-casualty event, but we’re expecting to see more of a chronic disease pattern with things like asthma, COPD and cancer,” she said. “We want to look at this population and identify who is most vulnerable. What are the effects we can see right now, and how can we plan for future pandemics?” 

“The COVID-19 situation is really complex, and its effects are not going away any time soon,” Beeson added. “It will require a broad public health approach to understand all of the implications in communities as diverse as Yakima County and others exposed at this level. We have to be open to a comprehensive approach to investigating it.”


Real-World Benefits, Long-Term Goals

The Emerging Respiratory Viruses Research Award, announced in late August, will provide CWU with $100,000 in 2020, and another $100,000 next year, pending ALA review.

The funding will be used primarily to pay CWU student researchers, many who hail from the targeted research area. About half of the Master of Public Health (MPH) program participants are from the Yakima Valley, and the professors hope the ALA funding will give them an opportunity to participate in a highly influential research project prior to graduation.

“This work is very relevant to their public health coursework, and they will also work closely with our community partners,” Mace-Firebaugh said. “We also hope to hire some undergrads because a lot of our students will be very interested in engaging in COVID-19 research.”

Both professors credited community partners such as the Yakima County Health District and Yakima County Emergency Management for their support in the grant-funded research. Beeson said she and her colleagues started reaching out to these and other organizations early this year, before the virus had developed into a worldwide pandemic.

“We knew our rural communities would be hit hard, and we knew many communities who were vulnerable to other public health issues, and other socially driven health disparities, would bear a disproportionate burden with COVID-19,” she said.

Now that the effects of the virus and the methods of preventing its spread are more widely understood, the CWU team can focus its efforts on how to help community members adopt prevention behaviors like handwashing, use of masks, and monitoring COVID-like symptoms. Understanding how individuals adopt these health behaviors — and how they interact with larger issues like the environmental and social context — will help future public health events from having such a catastrophic impact on specific populations like those in the Yakima Valley.

Could wildfire smoke and other environmental pollutants compound the recovery of COVID-19 patients? And what can be done to limit the long-term health effects of people who are exposed to similar illnesses?

“Our environmental context in Central Washington is different than places with high industrial pollution,” Mace-Firebaugh said. “Yakima residents have been exposed to wildfire smoke, which is unique to this area. Instead of factories and production plants, we have wildfire smoke and dairy farms.”

Beeson said the data and knowledge collected during the upcoming survey will help the CWU team and others in the scientific community respond more effectively to future outbreaks. 

“The question is how can we leverage the information we’re gathering now to solve today’s critical issue, but also how it will be used as a foundation for how we plan for and address future pandemic events,” she said.

Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, David.Leder@cwu.edu, 509-963-1518.

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