Coronavirus symptoms or smoke inhalation? In California, it's really hard to tell right now

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As we enter a new season with our not-so-new enemy, coronavirus, doctors on the front lines prepare for our regular flu season while the virus that has changed the world forever still looms large. If that weren’t enough, some medical workers have been thrown a new curveball. Medical facilities and hospitals on the West Coast are experiencing an influx of patients presenting with coronavirus symptoms but are actually experiencing something completely different — smoke inhalation.

In a new report by Kaiser Health News, health facilities and hospitals are reporting an influx of patients for problems most likely related to smoke inhalation. As you may well know, the West Coast is currently dealing with the most destructive wildfires they’ve ever had. They’re so big, in fact, that after destroying 4,700,000 acres of land this year alone, smoke from the still-blazing fires has now reportedly reached Europe.

But, close to the fires’ epicenter, towns in Northern California are bearing the brunt of the catastrophe’s side effects. So, in addition to making San Francisco look like the surface of hell or some alternate upside down dimension, people are breathing in smoke and ash that used to be California’s buildings, homes, trees and other objects — breathing in these pollutants is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, according to a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The trouble is that a COVID-19 symptoms are similar to those of many other illnesses, including the common flu. But unless a west coast patient has telltale signs of coronavirus, like "COVID toes" or the loss of taste or smell, it’s hard to tell why exactly a patient is coughing. So, doctors are taking measures to make sure that even if a patient has smoke inhalation sickness, they use COVID-19 protocols until they’re sure.

“We’ve seen an increase in patients presenting to the emergency department with respiratory distress,” said Nanette Mickiewicz, president and CEO of Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz to KHN. “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.”

Just to mention it, this wildfire (like many other wildfires) was caused by humans and this time, a gender reveal party that had pyrotechnics (?!) was to blame for at least one firefighter’s death. You can’t see it, but my face is an interrobang right now.

Mother Nature also must be aware how dumb the reason for that particular wildfire is, because she is truly letting us know in several ways that she has had enough. Humans were inevitably going to bear the brunt of their former actions at some point, but now we seem to be getting it all at once. Let’s hope this isn’t the dawn of a new era, and this nightmarish melange of natural disasters dissipates soon.