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Evacuation centers not managing dual threats of COVID-19 and wildfire smoke

N95 masks protect from smoke and Coronavirus.
N95 masks protect from smoke and Coronavirus

Aswildfires force New Mexicans to evacuate, Source New Mexico’sAustin Fisher reports that the evacuation centers are poorly managing COVID19 prevention.  Social distancing and mask wearing are not prioritized and air filters are not up to par.  He spoke with KUNM about what managing two concurrent crises looks like on the ground at two evacuation centers staffed by the Red Cross, FEMA, and the New Mexico Department of Health among others: the old Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas and the Glorieta Shelter, which closed this week.

AUSTIN FISHER:  They are too cramped to allow for social distancing. I saw many state workers and volunteers and FEMA personnel, just not wearing masks, not social distancing. I walked into the medical area at the Las Vegas shelter, I found that there were two air purifiers in that room and they were installed there specifically to pull COVID-19 out of the air. But one of the medical volunteers had put his basketball and his hat on top of the air exhaust for one of these air purifier units. The other air filtration unit in the medical area just wasn't working because it needed a new filter.

KUNM: You spoke with responders from the Red Cross, and FEMA, one Red Cross responder, in particular said, “We got put at risk coming here and we didn't know.” You spoke with several responders that said that testing and masking were important while they were not wearing masks; what's going on here?

FISHER: I was standing in the distribution area at the Las Vegas center and the operations manager of the center was telling me that they announced every single day to the evacuees, “You should wear a mask.” And she was telling me this, not wearing a mask herself. The Emergency Operations Centerspokesperson is telling me that there is no heating and air conditioning system in either of these shelters to pull coronavirus or wildfire smoke out of the air. The state of New Mexico is not actually checking to see whether or not school districts and charters are taking steps to mitigate COVID with these very simple, easy, cheap solutions that don't require relying on individual behavior or individual choice. There was no sort of pre-planning as part of the wildfire response to make sure that these facilities are safe.

KUNM:  You've mentioned that it's a little bit difficult in getting clear, in these evacuation centers, how many people have actually gotten COVID-19?

FISHER:  Positive cases are being found through testing by the Red Cross and by the New Mexico Medical Reserve Corps. Also the Department of Health is conducting testing. They are also providing vaccines to evacuees. You can't find the counts for these disaster centers. There's no explicit effort to say, “There have been this many cases at the center in Las Vegas.” The information is just not there. It bears repeating that we're not catching all of the cases that are out there. This is really important during a disaster response to a wildfire because wildfire smoke can actually increase the risk of catching COVID-19. DOH has confirmed to me they are not studying whether the current wildfire season is actually contributing at all to the disease.

KUNM:  Mutual aid efforts among New Mexicans, especially indigenous groups, appears to be ahead of the state response on integrating COVID-19 prevention with a wildfire response. What types of mutual aid efforts are in play right now that New Mexicans can look towards?

FISHER: I specifically spoke with the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, a huge group including Three Sisters Collective and Pueblo Action Alliance and Tewa Women United, up in Española, who have been distributing these masks and these Corsi-Rosenthal box kits to Native communities across the state since the beginning of the pandemic. Rather than placing the responsibility on individuals, these indigenous led mutual aid groups understand that a lack of action to mitigate COVID and to mitigate the health effects of wildfire smoke is a form of structural violence that disproportionately impacts elders, immunocompromised people, young children who still don't have vaccine access in this country.

KUNM: Thank you, Austin, for joining me.

FISHER: Thanks so much for having me on Jered.

Jered Ebenreck has volunteered in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Jered did Public Health reporting and analysis for KUNM from 2021-2022, while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer's.
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