Column: As air pollution worsens COVID-19, we must move to cleaner energy

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Southeast Michigan – home of Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code – has been hit hard by COVID-19 and new research from Harvard University has shown that patients with long-term exposure to pollution are more likely to die.

This heartbreaking reality is shown in Wayne County, where more than 1,500 people have already died from COVID-19. Nearby Macomb and Oakland counties have also been hit hard, tallying in over 1,100 deaths to date. Most notably, communities of color have suffered from a disproportionate burden of illness and death in Michigan and throughout the nation.

Speaking as a critical care registered nurse working in a medical intensive care unit (ICU) in Southeast Michigan and representing our coalition of healthcare workers throughout the state, we see firsthand how poor air quality impacts our patients with underlying conditions, such as asthma, and chronic heart and lung conditions.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, our state’s asthma rate is higher than the national average, and three to four times higher in Michigan’s most polluted ZIP codes. COVID-19 exacerbates these conditions, sadly leading to irreparable damage or death.

Today, our priority is treating patients with COVID-19. However, we also must plan for the long term to ensure every person – regardless of their ZIP code – can breathe clean, healthy air. This study proves what we have been saying for years. Pollution has dire consequences on public health, and it has never been more important to move to clean, renewable energy and electric vehicles to clean up our air. It is critical we work together to remedy these disparities and to improve air quality across the state.

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has already recognized the need to examine racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths with the creation of the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. As the coalition coordinator of MI Air MI Health – a coalition of health care professionals that advocates for air quality in Michigan – I hope the task force considers the downstream health impacts of policies around energy, transportation and health in Michigan.

The research is clear: Exposure to air pollution increases the risk of death by COVID-19. Michigan is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to diseases linked to air quality. Air pollution puts the health of Michigan’s most vulnerable people at risk – especially as we face the global COVID-19 pandemic.

We cannot afford to continue to rely on coal and other dirty sources of energy that pollute our air, especially when it exacerbates pre-existing conditions and diseases like COVID-19.

A healthier, cleaner future is possible with a shift to clean, renewable energy and electric vehicles, and I hope the governor’s new task force will take that into consideration. Until then, we hope everyone has the means and opportunity to stay healthy and safe.