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From Senator Jeff Merkley’s perspective….

Sen. Jeff Merkley
Glen Weaver photo

This has been a heartbreaking week. Wildfires are ravaging the West — displacing thousands of Oregonians, destroying homes, and exposing so much of our state to a thick blanket of hazardous smoke. I am deeply appreciative for the firefighters, first responders, administrators, and volunteers who are working around the clock to keep our communities safe.

And of course this catastrophe is coming during the pandemic, creating a compound tragedy and a particularly complicated set of challenges for people at high risk of COVID-19.  I urge everyone to stay up to date on air quality readings, prepare stay-at-home and evacuation kits, and make evacuation plans (click here for Red Cross guidance on what to include in your kits and how to make evacuation plans). You can sign up for text message, call, or email alerts by heading to this website, searching for your county, and signing up for alerts. For more information about what each level of evacuation entails, click here. Should you need to evacuate, you can find a list of evacuation sites here.

These circumstances would be challenging enough in normal times. But the truth is that wildfires and the dangerous smoke they create are threatening to make the pandemic even worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that smoke can make people more prone to respiratory diseases, including the coronavirus. And while in other years Oregonians could go to their local libraries or other large indoor public spaces to be in cleaner air, many of those spaces are currently closed due to the pandemic.

Now is the time to do everything we can to take care of our health and the health of our neighbors and loved ones. And the best way to do that is to limit your exposure to smoke.

Specific tips from the Oregon Health Authority and the CDC are:

—       Keep indoor air as clean as possible by closing all windows and doors, using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to reduce air pollution, avoid smoking tobacco, using wood-burning stoves or fireplaces, candles, incenses, or vacuuming;

—       Close all windows and set air conditioning to recirculate air when driving;

—       Stay hydrated to reduce symptoms of scratchy throat and coughing;

—       Stock up on medicines routinely taken by storing a 7 to 10-day supply for prescriptions medicines in a waterproof, childproof container to take with you if you evacuate;

—       Reduce time spent in smoky areas;

—       Reduce time spent outdoors and avoid vigorous outdoor activities; and

—       Listen to your body and immediately contact your healthcare provider or 911 if you are experiencing health symptoms.

Other steps you can take to create a cleaner air space at home to protect yourself from wildfire smoke during the pandemic include:

—       Using a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms;

—       Creating a do-it-yourself box fan filtration unit (instructions can be found here, NOTE to never leave these unattended);

—       During times of extreme heat, pay attention to temperature forecasts and stay safe; and,

—       If you have a forced air system in your home, you may need to speak with a qualified heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) professional about different filters (HEPA or MERV-13 or higher) and settings (“Recirculate” and “On” rather than “Auto”) you can use to reduce indoor smoke.

Guidance for Oregonians who are quarantining or isolated due to the coronavirus:

—       Regardless of whether you have the coronavirus, if you are ordered to evacuate, you should do so — Your first priority in wildfire situation is to respond to the evacuation and safety instructions of your local and state fire officials;

—       If possible, get in touch with your local public health authority for solutions to help you continue to isolate or quarantine if you are evacuated from your home;

—       Notify officials at any shelter or evacuation space that you are in isolation or quarantine so they can help you stay distanced from others;

—       Wear a mask at all times if you may come into contact with others who do not live with you, or anytime you are outside of your home;

—       If you are an older adult or a person with disabilities, reach out to the Aging and Disabilities Resource Connection for information about resources 1-855-ORE-ADRC(1-855-673-2372);

—       Practice physical distancing to the greatest extent possible if you must travel outside of your home for to evacuate or for any other reason.

For other recommendations from state officials, including those for Oregonians with chronic illnesses, click here.  For information about state resources, click here or text 2-1-1.

It is important to remember that while cloth masks can protect you and others from the coronavirus, they will not protect you from wildfire smoke because they cannot catch small, harmful particles found in smoke — and that some symptoms, like dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing can be caused by both wildfire smoke exposure and the coronavirus. Click here to learn more about symptoms of the virus, which include fever or chills, muscle or body aches, and diarrhea, which are not related to smoke exposure. You can use the CDC coronavirus self-checker to help you determine whether you need further assessment or testing for the coronavirus.

These are challenging times. But by sticking together, doing everything we can to being prepared, and heeding warnings and orders from public health officials, we will get through this. My team and I will be sharing more updates about wildfire safety and federal resources on my website, and I encourage you to bookmark my website and check back for more information as it becomes available. In the meantime, please stay safe.

All my best,
Jeff

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