Aug. 16, 2021
CWU Researchers Study Effects of COVID-19, Air Quality on Yakima County Residents
Central Washington University public health professors and graduate students are studying the combined impacts of COVID-19 and poor air quality on the physical well-being of Yakima County residents.
The groundbreaking research project, made possible by a $200,000, two-year grant from the American Lung Association (ALA), is utilizing survey data collected over the past year to examine the effectiveness of COVID-19 prevention strategies, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and gathering outdoors versus indoors.
The CWU team, led by associate professors Tishra Beeson and Casey Mace-Firebaugh, also hopes to understand how adverse air quality caused by wildfire smoke intersects with the presence of COVID-19 to complicate the community spread of disease.
“Record-high temperatures this summer have been leading more people to stay indoors, and if crowded, they can be riskier settings for transmitting the virus,” Beeson said. “Some of the best prevention strategies are to get outside, open windows, and not gather indoors with multiple households. But this summer, those strategies have been harder to implement.”
As if the heat weren’t enough of an impediment, the Yakima Valley has been coping with a steady dose of hazardous air quality in July and August due to a spate of West Coast wildfires. The extreme heat and poor air quality inevitably have forced people indoors, presenting more complex risk factors for contracting COVID-19.
“We have to examine what prevention strategies are reasonable, and 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. “We are particularly interested in hearing how people are navigating these environmental events as the Yakima Valley is exposed to hazardous air quality for a longer period of time than in a typical year.”
The connection between poor air quality and adverse outcomes for other respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD is well-established. Early research findings from the past year suggest that chronic exposure to air pollutants may be linked with more severe COVID-19 outcomes, including mortality.
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.
Beeson said the ALA is “very interested” in understanding the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 as a novel respiratory virus, adding that the second installment of the grant — which took effect July 1 — will allow the research team to develop a more “longitudinal view” of what is happening in a number of Yakima County communities. The area was ranked as the fifth-worst in the U.S. for short-term particle pollution in 2021.
“The extended funding will give us more of a broad brush stroke and help us understand what’s going on over time as the pandemic has evolved, instead of just one moment in time,” Beeson said. “We hope to learn from a diverse pool of study participants. It’s important that we have representation from anyone who’s been affected by these two dueling issues: air quality and COVID-19 disease.”
The research team has posted a new bilingual survey online, and will be gathering data over the next couple of months about the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on Yakima County residents, as well as the strategies used to help slow the spread of the virus. The survey on Keys2Prevention.org will be open to Yakima County residents through the end of August.
One of the primary goals over the next year, Beeson said, is to better understand the human behavior aspect of COVID-19, which may play a significant role in curbing the pandemic.
“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,” she said. “We have already learned a lot, but the situation continues to evolve — and so do people’s inclinations to participate in certain behaviors.”
Beeson noted that the most pressing challenge right now is to convince residents to participate in the survey. Since COVID-19 has become such a polarizing topic, it can be difficult to find people willing to talk to researchers. The team hopes the anonymous online survey route will help more people feel comfortable sharing their experiences.
“We are hoping this new approach will encourage more people to participate this time,” Beeson said.
Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs, David.Leder@cwu.edu, 509-963-1518.