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Some students stay indoors, hospital visits rise due to unhealthy air over Macon

The EPA’s AirNow website shows unhealthy air quality in red over about two-thirds of northeastern Georgia during the noon hour Tuesday. Smoke from northern wildfires is expected to funnel south through Wednesday
The EPA’s AirNow website shows unhealthy air quality in red over about two-thirds of northeastern Georgia during the noon hour Tuesday. Smoke from northern wildfires is expected to funnel south through Wednesday breaking@macon.com

The sun was shining, but some Bibb County students had to stay indoors Tuesday at recess.

On the south side of Macon, kids at Porter Elementary School played inside as unhealthy air quality was reported over two-thirds of the state and northerly winds funneled wildfire smoke deep into Middle Georgia.

AirNow — an EPA website that displays the Air Quality Index — showed an unhealthy area from Georgia’s northern border, through Atlanta and Macon as far south as Ben Hill County.

Dr. Shalabh “Mickey” Bansal, medical director of the Pediatric Emergency Room at Coliseum Northside Hospital, said he is seeing more children with respiratory illnesses since a smokey haze clouded the sky in recent days.

“Not only known asthmatics but kids that have been previously healthy that are coming in with very serious respiratory concerns, including wheezing, breathing very fast and low oxygen levels,” Bansal said.

The National Weather Service expects smokey conditions to continue into Wednesday as winds become more northerly but at slower speeds, which could lessen the impact in Middle Georgia.

David Gowan, risk manager for Bibb County schools, said he is monitoring NOAA smoke forecasts and expects Wednesday’s conditions to be better, but Thursday could be worse.

He has alerted principals to be ready for inside recess.

“If they are seeing smoke, cancel outdoor activities,” Gowan said.

Schools spokeswoman Stephanie Hartley said some principals, such as Cami Hamlin at Porter Elementary, decided to cancel recess Tuesday due to air quality concerns. Hamlin wanted to be proactive due to the number of students at the school with asthma, Hartley said.

“Our administrators are smart. They’ll be able to make that judgment,” she said.

Several wildfires raging along the northern border of Georgia, plus fires north of Carrollton and south of Talladega, Alabama, are expected to affect communities west of Atlanta as far south as Columbus.

Drought conditions have gotten so bad in Georgia that Gov. Nathan Deal banned fireworks until the state sees some rain.

Macon hasn’t seen any measurable rainfall since Oct. 7.

For the next few days, anyone sensitive to smoke, or who suffers from heart or lung ailments, is encouraged to limit outdoor exposure.

Macon-Bibb County Fire Department paramedics answered multiple calls of difficulty breathing Tuesday morning, and doctors at Coliseum Medical Centers are concerned as the “potential exists for aggravation of respiratory problems,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Jones.

As of Tuesday morning, Navicent Health had not seen patients reporting smoke-related issues at Urgent Care Centers or at the Medical Center, spokeswoman Megan Allen stated in an email.

On Monday, Georgia Health News reported significant increases in asthma-related emergency room visits in Dalton, Gainesville, Jasper and metro Atlanta during heavy wildfire smoke.

The Georgia Department of Public Health could not conclude with certainty that the surge was directly attributed to smoke pouring in from north Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Dr. Bansal suggests parents watch for a worsening cough, with sputum or increasing phlegm production, and difficulty breathing.

“If your child begins to wheeze, or you see his chest wall being sucked in and out as they breathe or they’re breathing fast, or they appear pale — all these respiratory concerns should indicate to the parents, that without hesitation, come here to the Pediatric Emergency Room,” Bansal said.

Everyone is encouraged to stay indoors as much as possible as long as air quality is at unhealthy levels.

Liz Fabian: 478-744-4303, @liz_lines

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