A massive dust cloud is barreling toward the U.S. The health impacts could be deadly.

Coronavirus-stricken U.S. faces another problem: A massive dust cloud from Africa.

A massive plume of dust from the Sahara Desert is drifting across the Atlantic Ocean and is expected to blanket parts of the Southeastern United States this week.

The enormous dust cloud — which some experts say could be the biggest and most intense Saharan plume in 50 years — could aggravate health problems, including asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and make visibility difficult on the ground.

“Dust particles are what we call particulate matter, and we know that breathing in fine particles of anything is not good for the respiratory tract — especially people who are sensitive to poor air quality,” said Thomas Gill, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso.

The added dust pollution may be particularly problematic in light of the coronavirus pandemic, because COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is a respiratory illness.

“There is some emerging information that people who live in places with higher levels of air pollution may be at higher risk” of COVID-19, said Gregory Wellenius, a professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

“There may be potential interactions between air pollution and COVID symptoms or progression, but it’s still pretty early data.”
Still, the potential health impacts of the dusty air could put more pressure on the country’s overburdened health care system, Wellenius said.

“Things like the wildfire season, hurricane season and extreme weather events, including this dust storm, may be magnified this year because resources are already stretched thin,” Wellenius said. “Just because we’re in a pandemic world doesn’t mean that other hazards that we tend to worry about aren’t happening.”

Part of the dusty veil has already reached the Caribbean Sea, and thick haze was reported Monday over Puerto Rico, Antigua and other islands in the region, according to The Associated Press.

Forecasts project that the dust cloud — which stretches thousands of miles — could swirl into the Gulf of Mexico and waft over Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere in the Southeast in the coming days.

By Denise Chow