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High Pollen Count Can Add to COVID-19 Susceptibility, Kean Researcher Finds

Covid-19 research graphic

A new study co-authored by a Kean adjunct professor shows that people who suffer pollen allergies are more likely to develop COVID-19 when pollen counts are high.

But in the same way that mask wearing can do battle against the coronavirus, the study co-authored by Leonard Bielory, M.D., also notes that wearing particle filter masks on high-pollen days can help.

“It is important to point out that it is not suspected that pollen actually carries the virus,” Bielory said. “Wearing a mask does provide improved wellness as a prevention measure, as it acts as a filter to prevent the inhalation of pollen and COVID-19 viruses.”

Bielory, an adjunct and STEM mentor at the New Jersey Center for Science and Technology at Kean (NJCSTM) who is a physician, allergist, immunologist and chair of the National Allergy Bureau, worked on the study. The research used pollen data collected at 130 sites in 31 countries across five continents. It was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The study looked at data on infection rates of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Also included was data on airborne pollen, humidity, temperatures and consideration of lockdown scenarios.

Researchers found an increase of COVID-19 infection with three-day persistent elevations of pollen counts.  

“Our results reveal that the simultaneous exposure to SARS-CoV-2 (via other infected human carriers) and airborne pollen may, under ‘favorable’ weather conditions, promote viral infection,” the study found. “In the light of the present pandemic situation, our findings should be communicated with caution.” 

Without a lockdown, an increase of 100 pollen grains per cubic meter of air led to a 4% average increase in infection rates, the study says. A lockdown halved infection rates under similar pollen concentrations.

With pollen season starting now in New Jersey and other temperate zones in the U.S. and the world, the information is timely. 

Kean has been tracking pollen since 2018, when the Kean University Pollen Station was created on the roof of the STEM Building. Kean University has already started reporting tree pollen at its station this year. Data from the pollen station is available on the free AccuPollen mobile app, available at the App Store and Google Play.

Kean has begun a process of expanding and seeking national certification for the pollen station, creating the Kean Center for Aerobiological Research Studies (CAReS). The Center will disseminate the local pollen count, provide research opportunities for students interested in aerobiology, conduct other related projects and be part of an aerobiology educational initiative at Kean. Bielory is on the team of the CAReS project.

“This is an ongoing project,” said David Joiner, Ph.D., an associate professor at Kean’s NJCSTM. “Our collaboration with Dr. Bielory and the establishment of the pollen station has led to multiple student projects, including the AccuPollen app that was developed and released and three masters thesis projects.”