The association of wildfire air pollution with COVID-19 incidence in New South Wales, Australia

26 Nov 2021

The 2020 COVID-19 outbreak in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, followed an unprecedented wildfire season that exposed large populations to wildfire smoke. Wildfires release particulate matter (PM), toxic gases and organic and non-organic chemicals that may be associated with increased incidence of COVID-19. This study estimated the association of wildfire smoke exposure with the incidence of COVID-19 in NSW. A Bayesian mixed-effect regression was used to estimate the association of either the average PM10 level or the proportion of wildfire burned area as proxies of wildfire smoke exposure with COVID-19 incidence in NSW, adjusting for sociodemographic risk factors. The analysis followed an ecological design using the 129 NSW Local Government Areas (LGA) as the ecological units. A random effects model and a model including the LGA spatial distribution (spatial model) were compared. A higher proportional wildfire burned area was associated with higher COVID-19 incidence in both the random effects and spatial models after adjustment for sociodemographic factors (posterior mean = 1.32 (99% credible interval: 1.05-1.67) and 1.31 (99% credible interval: 1.03-1.65), respectively). No evidence of an association between the average PM10 level and the COVID-19 incidence was found. LGAs in the greater Sydney and Hunter regions had the highest increase in the risk of COVID-19. This study identified wildfire smoke exposures were associated with increased risk of COVID-19 in NSW. Research on individual responses to specific wildfire airborne particles and pollutants needs to be conducted to further identify the causal links between SARS-Cov-2 infection and wildfire smoke. The identification of LGAs with the highest risk of COVID-19 associated with wildfire smoke exposure can be useful for public health prevention and or mitigation strategies.