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Saharan dust cloud hits Southern states in U.S. already struggling with coronavirus surge

Florida in particular faces a greater risk from the dust as the state experiences record-breaking coronavirus numbers, its ICU capacity under 25 percent.
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A dust cloud that drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara Desert hit the southeastern part of the U.S., with Florida expected to be most affected on Sunday.

The dust pollution will likely cause degraded air quality, hazy skies and reduced visibility, according to an update from the National Weather Service. Florida will probably be hit the hardest as the first wave comes in over the Atlantic and follows the winds to the Gulf of Mexico.

Dust particles are expected to ease on Monday before another wave is likely to return to the Gulf later in the week, the National Weather Service said.

Image: sahara dust cloud
The enormous plume of dust from the Sahara Desert that is drifting over the Atlantic Ocean will waft over parts of the southeastern U.S.National Weather Service

Experts told NBC News that people with respiratory illnesses could see their conditions aggravated by the dust particles, potentially putting a strain on hospitals already overrun with coronavirus cases.

Florida in particular faces a greater risk as the state experiences a record-breaking surge in new coronavirus cases and it’s adult intensive-care unit availability is at about 24 percent, according to state data Sunday. There are more than 141,000 coronavirus cases in Florida as thousands test positive each day.

There could potentially be a link between air pollution and COVID-19 symptoms, though the data is still very early, Gregory Wellenius, a professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health told NBC News Wednesday.

“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."

The National Weather Service said Sunday that the dust cloud could also contribute to colorful sunrises and sunsets, with deeper oranges and reds compared to normal.

Georgia’s Department of Public Health issued an advisory Saturday to residents, especially those with chronic lung conditions, to limit their time outdoors if they notice hazy skies.

“Keep windows and doors closed,” the advisory said. “Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed.”

The state also advised wearing a mask while in public to reduce both the risk of spreading coronavirus and also the risk of inhaling dust particles.

Social media users in the South began posting photos over the weekend showing the haze over skylines in places such as Texas and Florida.