A research team led by UCLA Fielding School of Public Health faculty has been awarded a contract to study connections between air pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.

“We’re really interested in seeing whether long term exposure to air pollution makes someone more likely to have a worse prognosis after they do get COVID-19,” said Michael Jerrett, a UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor of environmental health sciences who serves as the principal investigator of the team. The researchers include scientists and physicians from UCLA, the University of California, Davis; the University of California, Berkeley; and Kaiser Permanente Southern California.

The partnership with Kaiser will provide the researchers with patient information from a large cross-section of southern California’s population, from San Diego to Bakersfield. Jerrett said the size of that data pool and the quality of the health data is critical to understanding the impact that living in an area with bad air quality may have on whether a COVID-19 patient survives the disease.

“Kaiser has a population base of 4.5 million patients, and we can follow them from diagnosis through therapy to – potentially, and tragically – death,” said Jerrett, who has led similar research projects on air pollution and mortality in California and the U.S.

“We’re hypothesizing that people who live in areas with worse air quality in southern California are more likely to experience severe illness than people who live in areas with cleaner air,” Jerrett said. “Our advanced exposure modeling also allows us to hone in on the specific types of air pollution that could make people more likely to be admitted to be admitted to intensive care, or to die.”

The project is funded by the California Air Resources Board, whose board voted unanimously in July to allot more than $600,000 to the research effort. The work will analyze information from Kaiser Permanente about patient outcomes from Los Angeles, Kern, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties. The information will also enable the investigators to examine whether exposure gradients along socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity are partly responsible for a worse prognosis of some patient groups, as well as examining the impacts of preexisting conditions.

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