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How New Yorkers with Asthma are Coping with Corona

JANMARIS PEREZ (Host): Forty-two states are now under shelter in place orders, in a nationwide effort to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. The stakes are particularly high for the 25 million Americans with asthma. According to the CDC, their asthma puts them at greater risk for “severe illness” if they contract the virus. Tay Glass reports on one New Yorker with the condition who is trying to stay healthy.

((SOUND: Putting a leash on a dog))

TAY GLASS (Byline): Brandon Jackson has to go outside maybe twice a day to walk his dog, Han.

((SOUND: “Come here, Han,” panting, door opening, birds chirping))

GLASS 2: And yes, he did name his dog after a Star Wars character.

((JACKSON: "The air's very clear today…")

GLASS: Jackson is sensitive to air quality. He has asthma. And these days he can feel that the air quality near his Harlem apartment is way better than it was just a few weeks ago. For all of the fear and turmoil that COVID-19 has caused, air quality has improved across the globe. Carbon monoxide from cars and other traffic is estimated to be down by nearly 50% in New York City, compared to last year. CO2 over the city has dropped by almost 10 percent. And for Jackson, the change is remarkable.

BRANDON JACKSON: There is definitely a difference now that nobody's outside or using cars. Um, it is, it is discernible. It feels like the world has cleaner lungs.

GLASS: But going outside these days also comes with extra fear and uncertainty.

JACKSON: Yeah, when I walk outside I do, I do have like this existential anxiety...

GLASS: Jackson remembers getting pneumonia in the sixth grade.

JACKSON: I had a terrible cough. And I missed a ton of school for like eight months, or like nine months. And if this is just as dangerous, if not more so, it’s how healthy can I, how healthy am I to fight something off that we don't even know everything about yet?

GLASS: Jackson lives in Harlem, which has one of the highest rates of asthma in New York. Citywide, one in 10 people have the condition. But in Harlem, it’s more like one in four. Lubna Ahmed, who works for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, says that this disparity is due, in part, to the neighborhood’s higher levels of pollution.

LUBNA AHMED: In all of Manhattan, five out of the seven bus depots are located north of 100 Street. And you kinda get this like, really like stale stagnant air that, you know, you can almost like cut the air with a knife.

GLASS: Ahmed says that lower-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color often get stuck with the … bus depots, trash facilities, wastewater treatment plants…that more affluent white neighborhoods don’t want.

AHMED: You don't want kind of, like this, this, eyesore or something that smells in that neighborhood. But it can be in a black and brown neighborhood and that's fine. I mean, so our most vulnerable communities, you know, are dealing with the worst of like, climate change and environmental degradation.

GLASS: And chronic conditions, like asthma. And this might help explain why preliminary data shows that people in these neighborhoods have worse outcomes when they contract coronavirus than people elsewhere in the city. People in the Bronx are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than their neighbors in Manhattan, according to recent data from NYC Health.

((SOUND: Telephone rings))

((SOUND: “Hi, Doctor Kaplan.” “Can you hear me?”))

GLASS: Dr. Alan Kaplan is a respirologist who specializes in asthma. He says that coronavirus and asthma affect the lungs in different ways.

ALAN KAPLAN: When they have asthma they can’t empty their lungs and they can’t get a breath in. With COVID, they can get their breath in, it just doesn’t work.

GLASS: But Kaplan says that as long as a person’s asthma is under control… they should be alright.

KAPLAN: If someone’s asthma is not controlled very well, and they’re to get sick, they’ll probably do worse than someone whose asthma is very well controlled.

GLASS: People with asthma can’t control coronavirus. But they can try to limit their exposure to it and work to keep their asthma under control. Tay Glass. Columbia Radio News.

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