FORESTVILLE, Calif. — It's been a record year for wildfires in the United States with more smoke blanketing states than ever before.
Now, there's an emerging link between all that smoke and rising COVID-19 cases.
“This is the fourth year in a row of major wildfires,” said Ron Karp, executive director of non-profit Food for Thought, a food bank in Sonoma County. “It's more than just the fire itself. It's the memory of the previous fire. People are really on edge.”
This year, Sonoma County has been lucky so far, but in 2020, the Glass Fire wiped out more than 1,000 homes and burned 67,000 acres.
“The sun would come up orange for days,” said Harold DeWitt, a resident of Sonoma County.
Families here weren’t only worried about losing their homes. The pandemic ripped through this community at the same time, but Food for Thought was there to help.
“The fact that we're bringing all these nutritious foods to our COVID clients, I think is contributing to their ability to heal without getting as sick as other people would,” said Karp.
This food bank delivers healthy food to medically vulnerable people.
"Food as medicine saves money and makes people healthier,” said Karp.
It was started in 1988 on the foundation of another crisis.
“Food for Thought was founded in in the middle of an epidemic, the AIDS epidemic,” said Karp. “There were people that were suffering and didn't have enough food and they couldn't go to traditional food banks because people with aids were. People were afraid of people."
This prepared Karp to deal with long-lasting emergencies, and now, the need is greater than ever.
“Things really shifted when Delta came. We've already served twenty-five hundred people with COVID. It's a huge epidemic in the county right now, and no one really knows where it's going,” said Karp.
Karp is worried as he watches COVID cases climb again, the smoke in the air is only making his community sicker, and his job tougher.
“It certainly has exacerbated people's problems with COVID, because the smoke is really bad for the lungs, and COVID is a disease that affects the lungs. So, I think more people are dying because of that,” he said.
Researchers at Harvard found that is true. They studied almost 100 counties across California, Washington and Oregon and found 20% of COVID cases in 2020 were linked to elevated wildfire smoke. That means 19,742 COVID cases and 750 COVID deaths were attributable to smoke.
Researchers say the trend could be even more deadly this fire season.
Harold DeWitt was grateful he survived his breakthrough case of COVID-19.
“They said that if I hadn't had the vaccine, there was a possibility, you know, that I would not have been in very good shape,” said DeWitt.
He has diabetes and Parkinson’s.
“I don't walk very good at all. I have balance issues and I have neuropathy real bad from the diabetes,” said DeWitt.
DeWitt got COVID-19 this summer. He doesn’t know if his case was tied to the fires, but he said the smoky air made it tougher to heal.
“I had a real bad cough, and I would get some pretty, pretty strong headaches. You just continue to wear the mask to try to not have the smoke affect you because it does, you know, it gets into the air and air quality is not good,” DeWitt said.
Food for Thought delivered food to him as he recovered.
“I can't tell you how much it helped me. It was just something that I couldn't do, so I was pretty grateful for that," DeWitt said.
Karp learned from years past how much these brown bags can mean. In 2017, power shutoffs during fire season destroyed nearly all their inventory.
“We lost almost maybe even over $10,000's worth of fresh food in in our walk-in cooler in the walk-in freezer,” he said. “It's really painful to throw away that much food. We had an entire dumpster full of really great produce that we had to just throw away.”
So, they raised money for a generator, and now, they are ready for the emergencies that will come.
“Our clients really are more likely to have bigger problems than most people because they don't have the resources or maybe they don't have a friend's house that they can move to or maybe they can't even afford the gas to evacuate,” said Karp.
But they will have Karp and his team for support, tackling dual disasters, one grocery bag at a time.
“There's just a lot of different things to worry about,” Karp said. “It's a tough time for California.
If you’d like to get involved with Food for Thought, click HERE.