Smoke, virus bring residents to ER

Many Whidbey Island residents have spent a lot of time coughing and sniffling in the last week.

For South Whidbey resident Mike Swap, who suffers from broken ribs and a lung injury, everyday living in a smoke-filled world is difficult.

Swap said he’s had a hard time getting around this week because of the noxious wildfire smoke that has blanketed the area. He was in Payless Foods and couldn’t go on after 20 minutes of shopping. Fortunately, people in the meat and seafood department came to the rescue and assisted him, even shopping for him.

“I’ve never had anybody go out of their way like that,” he said.

Swap is not alone in his challenges. Many Whidbey Island residents have spent a lot of time coughing and sniffling in the last week — for at least a couple of different reasons.

The smoke from mainland wildfires has turned the air unhealthy in much of Western Washington and generated poor air quality warnings. While surrounding areas were worse, Oak Harbor’s air quality index reached 150 on Tuesday, which is at the edge of the unhealthy “red zone.”

The particle pollution in the hazy air can cause a range of respiratory symptoms, including respiratory irritants, coughing, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Although the exact numbers aren’t available yet, WhidbeyHealth experienced a significant increase in the volume of patients in the Emergency Department who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other pre-existing respiratory ailments, according to Conor O’Brien, marketing manager and public records officer.

“We’re estimating that we’ve seen double the ‘standard’ amount respiratory-related cases due to the smoke,” he wrote in an email.

To make matters worse for those who like to breathe, Whidbey Island has seen a sizable increase in the number of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, cases. The virus causes mild, cold-like symptoms which most people recover from in a week or two, but it can be more serious in infants, older people and those with other health conditions.

O’Brien said the hospital and clinics have had more positive RSV results in the last two weeks than it has in recent months or even the past several years.

It isn’t unique to Whidbey. The CDC reported a spike in RSV cases in the nation, which came earlier in the season than in past years. Hospitals across the country reported being overwhelmed by a surge in the number of children with the illness, according to CBS News.

On top of all that, flu season is on the way and there is still that illness called COVID making unlucky people wheeze and cough.