A man vaping
A man vaping with an e-cigarette. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As San Diego County begins to open up from the COVID-19 pandemic, questions regarding other public health dangers also warrant a closer look.

On May 24, a San Diego woman reportedly died from a vaping-related lung injury known as EVALI (E-cig Vaping Associated Lung Injury). She is the fourth local victim of EVALI to be diagnosed during the pandemic.

This tragic death was complicated to diagnose while hospitals were focusing on patients with similar symptoms from COVID-19. Outside of San Diego County, another eight victims have been diagnosed with EVALI in Los Angeles and, as of the last update on EVALI from the CDC website, a total of 2,807 cases have been identified nationally.

Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of epidemiology for San Diego County, was quoted as saying, “It took quite a bit of work to properly classify the April cases given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Shortness of breath and respiratory distress are hallmark symptoms of novel coronavirus infection and we repeatedly tested to rule out the virus. The cases are even more significant given that the entire world is currently embroiled in a pandemic of respiratory illness,”

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One notable fact is that most of the EVALI cases have occurred in younger people with no prior medical problems. One 17-year-old youth required a double lung transplant back in January. The culprit seems to be a chemical added to a THC vape cartridge called vitamin E acetate. Yet, just as with COVID-19, there is much that remains unknown.

Given that most of the cases have been associated with vaping marijuana or THC products, one would assume declaring marijuana an essential business during the pandemic may increase the chances of getting EVALI.

Therefore, wouldn’t it make sense to close marijuana businesses until it is determined what is causing the EVALI injuries and deaths being observed? Not only were these businesses not closed, they were deemed essential and given the same status as pharmacies, blood banks and medical facilities.

Turning a blind eye to an industry with strong links to lung disease and deaths during a respiratory pandemic is not only dangerous, it is sending the wrong message to our youth.

Our leaders need to make decisions informed by evidence from the medical community to avoid aggravating and complicating an already bad situation, and most importantly, to save lives.

Joe Eberstein is the program manager for the San Diego County Marijuana Prevention Initiative