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People in Houma, Louisiana wait in line to buy supplies at a Dollar Store that opened, despite having no power, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • As wildfires in California and Hurricane Ida in Louisiana strike, some people in those areas might be at greater risk for COVID-19, especially people who need to take refuge in community shelters.
  • If you live in an area where a natural disaster takes place, there are ways to protect yourself.
  • Preparing ahead of time for a natural disaster should include ways to protect yourself from COVID-19.

As multiple natural disasters hit the United States, including the raging wildfires in California and Hurricane Ida that just hit Louisiana, COVID-19 continues to surge.

Combined, these situations put more strain on an already overwhelmed hospital system.

For instance, Texas Medical Center experienced high admissions numbers for a few months. Now, those numbers are beginning to plateau. However, the hospital may need to take on patients from Louisiana, if hospital evacuations are needed there.

While Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says moving patients could put strain on the hospital they are transferred to, he says the spread of COVID-19 in these situations isn’t as alarming.

“If they’re going from hospital to hospital, obviously in the transport, healthcare workers have to be very careful to protect themselves and protect the patients. However, I’m less concerned about that since in the healthcare setting everybody’s got protective equipment on and should be vaccinated,” Schaffner told Healthline.

But he is concerned about people who have to evacuate their homes and transfer to shelters or stay with other people temporarily.

“This kind of large rescale relocation of people in disaster circumstances often results in the spread of infectious diseases, particularly respiratory infections, as people are put together in shelters or temporary housing or visit with family and relatives,” said Schaffner.

When people are forced to leave their homes in a rush and to crowd together with others, they may not be prepared with masks and may not be able to remain physically distanced.

“Many people who they encounter indoors will not be vaccinated, so there will be the virus out there spreading in some of those circumstances,” Schaffner said.

Additionally, COVID-19 vaccination sites in the affected locations most likely won’t be open and routine medical care might be on hold, so testing in the event that people develop symptoms will be limited.

In addition to the risks that come with being relocated, Dr. Scott Braunstein, medical director of Sollis Health in Los Angeles, California says people who have been most affected by the natural disasters in California and Louisiana, are at much higher risk of developing COVID-19 because of the states they live in.

“Even during normal times, natural disasters inflict not only loss of life and property, but also lead to worse outcomes for all health conditions, and [put] stress on the medical system,” he said.

“When these disasters occur during a pandemic, the effects are compounded, and one can expect an even more devastating outcome,” he told Healthline.

Louisiana has one of the lowest vaccination rates among U.S. states, and many of the California counties affected by the wildfires have high COVID-19 positivity rates (10.6 percent in El Dorado County, which includes South Lake Tahoe).

“Along with high transmission rate of the delta variant, this has the makings of a superspreader event,” Braunstein said.

“Just today in Louisiana, three hospitals were forced to rapidly evacuate their patients, many of whom can be presumed to be COVID-positive. This only increases the risk for spread of infection among patients, staff, and the local communities,” he said.

If you find yourself relocated due to a natural disaster, medical experts say there are ways to protect yourself.

Get vaccinated

If you’re not vaccinated yet, and there is an opportunity, getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself.

“We know that you have significant protection, even after a single dose,” said Braunstein.

Wear a mask

As with all large indoor gatherings or multifamily events, wearing a mask provides protection. If you are forced to stay with people you don’t typically live with, wearing a mask may be your best defense.

“Try to use masks as much as possible. Have a lot on hand,” said Schaffner.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that masks should have multiple layers and fit snug against your face.

Take note if you are near wildfire smoke. While cloth masks can slow the spread of COVID-19 by blocking respiratory droplets, the CDC states that they do not protect you from wildfire smoke because they can’t catch the small particles in smoke that are harmful to your health.

However, KN95 respirators can provide protection from both wildfire smoke and from COVID-19.

Maintain physical distance when possible

While it might be difficult, maintain physical distance from others when you can, and try to limit your exposure to a fixed group of people, if possible.

Practice hand hygiene

Every opportunity you have to wash your hands or sanitize them, do so.

“And encourage all the people around you to do the same thing,” said Schaffner.

If you develop COVID-19 during a disaster and are not able to get medical care, practice masking, good hygiene, and isolate yourself as much as possible from other people.

If you’re able to get to a hospital, depending on your medical history, you may be eligible to receive Regeneron monoclonal antibody therapy.

Schaffner said doctors are providing this therapy for people who develop COVID-19, if they qualify by being in a high-risk group.

“But of course, it’s possible this might be disrupted in disaster areas, and it’s not a treatment you can do on your own. You have to go to a facility to receive it,” he said.

If you are in an area with wildfire smoke, and are experiencing symptoms that could be from smoke or COVID-19 such as dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing, the CDC COVID-19 Self-Checker can help you assess if you need testing for COVID-19. When in doubt, get medical attention, if possible.

With more disasters possibly on the way, set some time aside to prepare and make a plan.

“If you live in an area which has a history of wildfires, floods, earthquakes, or other natural disasters, develop a plan ahead of time, as to where you and your family members will evacuate to, and stock enough emergency supplies for at least 3 to 5 days,” said Braunstein.

In addition to your disaster kit of water, blankets, food, and first aid materials, add in enough masks, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer (at least 60 percent alcohol) for your entire family.

However, medical experts suggest you should put getting vaccinated at the top of your list.

“Getting vaccinated is the single best way to avoid developing COVID, and ensuring that you do not end up hospitalized or with a severe case,” Braunstein said.

“If you were already vaccinated, and are immunocompromised, speak with your doctor about whether you are eligible to receive an additional dose,” said Braunstein.

For more information on disaster planning during the pandemic, visit the CDC website.