The Saharan Air Layer and what it means during the COVID-19 pandemic

Over the final weekend in June, major portions of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and several southern states observed hazy skies and poor air quality, as an unusually large Saharan Air Layer outbreak crossed the Atlantic to cover portions of the United States. These outbreaks are created as sandstorms occur across the Sahara and winds pick up large amounts of dust and sand and lift it into the atmosphere. There, it forms a cloud or plume that can travel significant distances and spread over thousands of miles. While this is relatively common, the size of this particular plume is unusually large. This weekend’s cloud was one of the densest in the past 50 – 60 years. 

To date, the greatest impacts have been focused in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and the Southeastern US. These regions primarily saw the storm over the past weekend, although lingering conditions can be expected throughout the week. Texas, Louisiana, and surrounding states may see a second plume later this week.

What effect does this have, and who will be the most affected?

The primary effect of the dust cloud is decreased air quality. Under normal circumstances, this could cause problems for those with respiratory illnesses or allergies. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this could potentially put more pressure on a system that is already strained due to a respiratory illness.

Minority populations continue to be severely impacted by COVID-19. Health systems in these communities are at higher risk of being overwhelmed while the pandemic is ongoing, especially by a threat that causes similar symptoms to COVID-19 such as poor air quality. Difficulty breathing or intense coughing caused by the dust cloud could cause an increase in visits to hospitals, which would require the same medicines and equipment that are already critically needed to treat COVID-19. 

Additionally, the states covered by this weather event are also those affected severely by COVID-19. The two states predicted to be most heavily impacted by the Saharan dust storm are Texas and Florida, which have both seen massive increases in COVID-19 case counts over the past week. The Surgo Foundation, through the COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Map, has charted the vulnerability level of each county in the United States to COVID-19. The top 10 most vulnerable counties are in Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida—all states predicted to see the dust storm weather pattern.

How do we prepare for this event, and how can we protect vulnerable populations?

Thankfully, many of the same measures used to combat the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing a mask, not gathering in large groups, and restricting the amount of time spent away from your home, are also useful tools for protecting yourself from negative effects of poor air quality. Mitigating the spread of COVID-19 should continue to be a priority, even as other events like this dust storm, hurricanes, and other weather events begin to impact our communities.

Health systems, especially those in areas particularly affected by COVID-19, should be aware of these weather patterns, and that they may cause respiratory issues, especially in those with pre-existing conditions. To the best extent possible, healthcare systems should ensure that they are prepared to handle any non-COVID-19 cases that arise, in terms of both equipment and staff. Hospitals and healthcare systems that care for vulnerable populations may need to take specific care to make sure that they have the resources needed to serve their communities.

As individuals, the best response we can have to stay safe is to follow the advice of our state and local health departmentsas they issue guidance for both COVID-19 and poor air quality. For example, if you are a resident of Georgia, that means that you should: