Heavy smoke from wildfires along the West Coast has created unhealthy air quality and prompted calls to stay indoors. But not everyone has the option to go inside.
Skagit Valley farmers must harvest their crops, and workers have little choice but to work in the smoke, which is expected to linger through Thursday.
In an effort to protect agricultural workers, about 2,000 KN95 respirator masks were distributed Monday and Tuesday to area farms.
Workers were already required to wear cloth face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19, but cloth masks do little to protect against wildfire smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Respirator masks, if worn correctly, can protect against small, harmful particles in smoke.
The Skagit County Department of Emergency Management is working with partners to distribute 15,000 respirator masks to first responders, critical infrastructure workers, the homeless and others, said Laura Han, spokesperson for Skagit County. Two thousand masks were set aside for agricultural workers.
The county partnered with the Washington State University Skagit County Extension to hand out masks to farms.
Don McMoran, the extension’s director, said he personally delivered masks to about 20 farms in Skagit County since putting out a call Monday.
“I kind of felt like Santa Claus (Monday) night,” he said. “People were very appreciative to receive the masks.”
The masks went to nurseries, potato, grain, pumpkin, bulb and berry growers, a shellfish farm and a dairy.
Han said the masks will do double duty by protecting workers from the smoke and slowing the spread of the virus. She said the KN95 masks the county received from the state do not have exhalation valves.
The CDC has warned that masks with exhalation valves are not effective in controlling the spread of the virus because they allow respiratory droplets to escape.
“The KN95s can’t be used for medical purposes, but they are made with a filter (that can handle) the particle size that is concerning in the smoke and as such should be able to control the virus without needing additional layers,” Han wrote in an email.
She said the “K” means that the N95 masks were made outside the U.S.
As of Tuesday afternoon, air quality remained in the “very unhealthy” range, though showed improvement from the previous days, according to a Mount Vernon monitoring site that provides data to the state Department of Ecology’s Air Monitoring Network.
Jose Ortiz, director of Catholic Community Services’ Farmworker Resource Center, said many farmworkers can’t afford to stay home to escape smoky air.
“They need to work in order to survive, and this is the time when they could save money for the rest of year,” he said.
He said some in the farmworker community have complained of headaches, a symptom of smoke exposure.
Ralph’s Greenhouse, an organic vegetable farm west of Mount Vernon, received a shipment of respirator masks for workers on Tuesday, said owner Ray de Vries. He said the harvest has to carry on despite the smoke.
“We can’t (slow down),” he said. “People have to eat. A lot of farming is just that way. You work with what you have and make the most of it. The smoke will go away a lot faster than the coronavirus.”
De Vries said the farm’s workers accrue paid time off and can take a day off if needed.
He said agricultural workers are dealing with multiple risks — COVID-19 and wildfire smoke — and the discomfort of wearing a mask all day.
“We have to be very thankful to the farmworkers who show up to work every day so we have food in grocery stores,” De Vries said.