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It's tough to tell COVID-19 from smoke inhalation symptoms — and flu season's coming

By Mark Kreidler, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

The patients walk into Dr. Melissa Marshall's community clinics in Northern California with the telltale symptoms. They're having trouble breathing. It may even hurt to inhale. They've got a cough, and the sore throat is definitely there.

A straight case of COVID-19? Not so fast. This is wildfire country.

Up and down the West Coast, hospitals and health facilities are reporting an influx of patients with problems most likely related to smoke inhalation. As fires rage largely uncontrolled amid dry heat and high winds, smoke and ash are billowing and settling on coastal areas like San Francisco and cities and towns hundreds of miles inland as well, turning the sky orange or gray and making even ordinary breathing difficult.

But that, Marshall said, is only part of the challenge. Facilities already strapped for testing supplies and personal protective equipment must first rule out COVID-19 in these patients, because many of the symptoms they present with are the same as those caused by the virus.

"Obviously, there's overlap in the symptoms," said Marshall, the CEO of CommuniCare, a collection of six clinics in Yolo County, near Sacramento, that treats mostly underinsured and uninsured patients. "Any time someone comes in with even some of those symptoms, we ask ourselves, 'Is it COVID?' At the end of the day, clinically speaking, I still want to rule out the virus."

The protocol is to treat the symptoms, whatever their cause, while recommending that the patient quarantine until test results for the virus come back, she said.

 

It is a scene playing out in numerous hospitals. Administrators and physicians, finely attuned to COVID-19's ability to spread quickly and wreak havoc, simply won't take a chance when they recognize symptoms that could emanate from the virus.

"We've seen an increase in patients presenting to the emergency department with respiratory distress," said Dr. Nanette Mickiewicz, president and CEO of Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz. "As this can also be a symptom of COVID-19, we're treating these patients as we would any person under investigation for coronavirus until we can rule them out through our screening process." During the workup, symptoms that are more specific to COVID-19, like fever, would become apparent.

For the workers at Dominican, the issue moved to the top of the list quickly. Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties have borne the brunt of the CZU Lightning Complex fires, which as of Sept. 10 had burned more than 86,000 acres, destroying 1,100 structures and threatening more than 7,600 others. Nearly a month after they began, the fires were approximately 84% contained, but thousands of people remained evacuated.

Dominican, a Dignity Health hospital, is "open, safe and providing care," Mickiewicz said. Multiple tents erected outside the building serve as an extension of its ER waiting room. They also are used to perform what has come to be understood as an essential role: separating those with symptoms of COVID-19 from those without.

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