Did wildfire smoke help prevent COVID-19 spike over Labor Day Weekend? UCSF doctor weighs in

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Wildfire smoke may have kept Bay Area residents indoors Labor Day weekend, possibly preventing a future spike in COVID-19 numbers.

Leading up to Labor Day weekend officials warned of increased coronavirus risks, but large Labor Day gatherings may not have occurred in part due to the wildfires and poor air quality.

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ABC7 News data journalists analyzed mobility data from mobile devices. Looking at the typical distance traveled by residents on Labor Day for each of the Bay Area's nine counties, the distance traveled is especially low.

The lowest distance traveled was for people living in Alameda County, with the typical person traveling less than 1/4 of a mile. While the greatest distance traveled was for people in Marin County, with the typical person driving a little more than a mile.

Dr. George Rutherford is a Professor of Epidemiology for UCSF.

"It's hard to ascribe a silver lining to the to wildfires that are burning up large chunks of the state and people's livelihoods and houses with it but I would see this more as kind of a collateral benefit of that disaster," said Dr. Rutherford.


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In its summer travel forecast AAA reported travel would be down 15% as compared to last year.

"Obviously the CDC still recommends that we don't travel at this point because of the pandemic ... there are several other things that were going on in Northern California that people may have decided to stay home about, the air quality being one of them," said AAA Northern California Spokesperson Sergio Avila.

Avila says travelers are making a lot more last-minute decisions.

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"Where they're deciding to travel either day of or within a week of their travel time," said Avila.

He also says they're driving more than flying.

"What we've discovered is those road trips are a short distance away, anywhere between 4-6 hours," said Avila.

When deciding whether to hunker down at home or road trip to get to fresher air, Dr. Rutherford says, "It's all trade-offs."

The decision to stay in-doors Labor Day weekend could be reflected in the state's COVID-19 case numbers over the next week.

"If people stayed home for whatever reason and there's less chance for transmission and we should see that in lower numbers of cases and a lower positivity rate," said Dr. Rutherford.

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