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Smokestacks in Florida. Photo: Getty Images

A new study of more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. finds a correlation between higher levels of particulate air pollution and higher death rates from COVID-19.

Why it matters: COVID-19 may be caused by the novel coronavirus, but the outcome of an infection is influenced by everything from age to race to the environment. Understanding the connection between disease and pollution can help us address those risks going forward.

By the numbers: In a study published today in Science Advances, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found every increase of one microgram of fine-particle air pollutants at the county level was associated with an 11% increase in that county's COVID-19 mortality rate.

  • That result echoes earlier preprint research by the same team from the earliest weeks of the pandemic showing that air pollution was connected to worse outcomes from COVID-19.

The catch: The researchers caution that because individual-level data on COVID-19 outcomes for large, representative populations doesn't yet exist, it's difficult to be certain that air pollution is connected to coronavirus deaths.

  • People who live in areas with high levels of air pollution are also more likely to be poor and Black — two factors also associated with higher levels of COVID-19 death rates.

Yes, but: As Jeremy Jackson and Kip Hodges point out in an accompanying editorial, science has clearly established air pollution is a risk factor for death from cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, which perfectly describes COVID-19.

  • Threats from new diseases "are likely to be exacerbated by air pollution, even at the levels currently attained in the United States despite conscientious efforts to improve air quality," Jackson and Hodges write.

The bottom line: We now understand the novel coronavirus can be airborne, and so are the air pollutants that appear to make the disease that much worse.

Go deeper

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Science helps New Zealand avoid another coronavirus lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) visits a lab at Auckland University in December. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

J&J says its one-shot vaccine is 66% effective against moderate to severe COVID

Photo: Thiago Prudêncio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson announced Friday that its single-shot coronavirus vaccine was 66% effective in protecting against moderate to severe COVID-19 disease in Phase 3 trials, which was comprised of nearly 44,000 participants across eight countries.

Between the lines: The vaccine was 72% effective in the U.S., but only 57% effective in South Africa, where a more contagious variant has been spreading. It prevented 85% of severe infections and 100% of hospitalizations and deaths, according to the company.

Updated 18 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: CDC director maintains Pfizer booster recommendation for high-risk workers — CDC director approves Pfizer boosters, adds eligibility for high-risk workers — FDA approves Pfizer boosters for high-risk individuals, people 65 and up.
  2. Health: America's mismatched COVID fears — Some experts see signs of hope as cases fall — WHO: Nearly 1 in 4 Afghan COVID hospitals shut after Taliban takeover — D.C. goes further than area counties with vaccine mandates.
  3. Politics: Bolsonaro isolating after health minister tests positive at UN summit — United Airlines says 97% of U.S. employees fully vaccinated — Mormon Church to mandate masks in temples.
  4. Education: Health care workers and teachers caught up in booster confusion — Asymptomatic Florida students exposed to COVID no longer have to quarantine — Education Department investigating Texas mask mandate ban.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.