Lower respiratory tract infections disproportionately affect children and are one of the main causes of hospital referral and admission. COVID-19 stay-at-home orders in early 2020 led to substantial reductions in hospital admissions, but the specific contribution of changes in air quality through this natural experiment has not been examined. Capitalizing on the timing of the stay-at-home order, we quantified the specific contribution of fine-scale changes in PM2.5 concentrations to reduced respiratory emergency department (ED) visits in the pediatric population of San Diego County, California. We analyzed data on pediatric ED visits (n = 72,333) at the ZIP-code level for respiratory complaints obtained from the ED at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego County (2015-2020) and ZIP-code level PM2.5 from an ensemble model integrating multiple machine learning algorithms. We examined the decrease in respiratory visits in the pediatric population attributable to the stay-at-home order and quantified the contribution of changes in PM2.5 exposure using mediation analysis (inverse of odds ratio weighting). Pediatric respiratory ED visits dropped during the stay-at-home order (starting on 19 March 2020). Immediately after this period, PM2.5 concentrations, relative to the counterfactual values based in the 4-year baseline period, also decreased with important spatial variability across ZIP codes in San Diego County. Overall, we found that decreases in PM2.5 attributed to the stay-at-home order contributed to explain 4% of the decrease in pediatric respiratory ED visits. We identified important spatial inequalities in the decreased incidence of pediatric respiratory illness and found that brief decline in air pollution levels contributed to a decrease in respiratory ED visits.
Aguilera Rosana, Leibel Sydney, Corringham Thomas, Bialostozky Mario, Nguyen Margaret B, Gershunov Alexander, Benmarhnia Tarik