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By Kate Chappell and Sarah Marsh

KINGSTON/HAVANA, Jamaica,Cuba, Weds. June 24, 2020 (Reuters) – A massive plume of Saharan dust has shrouded swathes of the Caribbean, turning blue skies into a milky-brown haze and sparking health warnings across the region as air quality fell to unhealthy levels.

Strong warm winds over the Sahara desert typically whip up sand at this time of year and carry it thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. This year, the dust is the most dense in a half a century, according to several meteorologists. The thick smog has sharply reduced visibility.

Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, usually a prominent sight towering over Kingston, were hidden behind an oppressive white cloud.

“I’m not sure if it’s sneaking in through the vents, because the air inside doesn’t feel the same,” said Sarue Thomas, 31, from her office in Kingston, where temperatures exceeded 30 degrees Celsius and the air was stiflingly thick.

“This is something that we’ve not ever seen before,” said Thomas, adding that her three-year-old son had developed a dry cough.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen since we’ve kept records,” said Evan Thompson, director of the meteorological service division in Jamaica.

“We are seeing a much thicker mass of dust particles suspended. It is a lot more distinct and noticeable.”

The dust cloud moved into the eastern Caribbean at the weekend and by Tuesday had smothered Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and eastern Cuba, continuing its advance up and westward toward Central America and southern United States.

Officials across the region warned locals to remain at home when possible and wear a face mask, especially if they already had a respiratory condition, as the dust was a powerful irritant and could contain pathogens as well as minerals.

“The use of a face mask is recommended in this situation, in addition to already being necessary for prevention of COVID-19,” said Cuba’s top weather man, Jose Rubiera, on his Facebook page.

“Those with asthma and people with allergies should be careful and stay at home.”

The Saharan dust typically “helps build beaches in the Caribbean and fertilizes soils in the Amazon” in addition to affecting air quality, according to NASA, which has captured satellite images of the plume.

(Reporting by Kate Chappell in Kingston and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by David Gregorio)

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