“I do think that people not being out is one significant ingredient to what we’re seeing in 2020. They’re still seeing impacts of the heat, but it’s maybe not as deadly as previous summers because of COVID-19.”
It’s difficult to come up with many positives related to the coronavirus, but one may be a reduction in heat-related deaths.
In Philadelphia, which is experiencing its third hottest July since 1871, there have been no heat-related deaths officially recorded. The deadliest July on record in Philadelphia was 1993 with 118 deaths related to heat. But this summer has actually been hotter with an average temperature of 81.9 degrees compared to 81.4.
“I do think that people not being out is one significant ingredient to what we’re seeing in 2020,” said Michael Allen, professor at Old Dominion University. “They’re still seeing impacts of the heat, but it’s maybe not as deadly as previous summers because of COVID-19.”
Heat-related deaths have been on a downward trend since the early 1990s when Philadelphia had its deadly summer in 1993 and when Chicago suffered through the 1995 summer that killed more than 700 residents.
After those deadly summers, more efforts were put into communicating the risk of heat-related health problems and more outreach programs were undertaken, especially aimed at those of more significant risk such as the elderly, those who work outside and those who may be without air conditioning.
After the deadly Philadelphia summer of 1993, the city partnered with the National Weather Service on a heat-wave response system with excessive heat warnings. In Chicago after the 1995 summer, the city created the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and developed a heat response plan.
“It’s safe to say that we have not experienced anything close to 1995,” Mary May from the emergency management office told the Philadelphia Enquirer.
Another factor also is that more Americans have air conditioning than during those years and the outreach and communication have had a positive result as well. But it’s difficult to determine how successful those programs have been.
“There’s a difficulty in the communication, but through all those efforts, whether it be communication or education and outreach, whether it is other mechanisms, we’ve seen a decline in general in heat-related health issues in the U.S.”
“There are important caveats that sometimes aren’t captured,” Allen said. “In the last 30 years after Chicago, obviously a lot of effort has been done to improve communications and educational awareness and Philadelphia as well.”
Allen said there are indications of an upward trend of heat-related problems for the more vulnerable people in the population — those over 60, the poor and those who work outside, among some others.
“I think we’ve done a very good job the last couple of decades, but there’s a lot more work to do, particularly with the most vulnerable populations,” Allen said. “We’re still having a lot more heat events. Heat waves are increasing in intensity and duration.”
The prevalence of heat-related issues can differ depending on location within the country and even within a state and some populations may be vulnerable when neighboring communities are protected. “That may explain why if you live in a neighborhood with a lot of green space, you may be less vulnerable as opposed to no green space, no trees, where the local temperature may be really high,” Tarik Benmarhnia, a public health researcher at the University of San Diego, told Emergency Management last summer.
“Living in a poor neighborhood with no green space, you’re also going to be exposed to high levels of pollutions, which may lead to asthma or other co-morbidities that may make you more vulnerable to a heat event,” Benmarhnia said.
There’s a case to be made that some deaths are being classified as being caused by something else. “Because a mortician or county coroner might code the death as cardiovascular if the individual had a heart attack, or as respiratory failure,” Allen said.
“The cardiovascular and respiratory functionality is dependent on your body’s physiological response but also tied to environmental conditions,” said Allen. “So yes, you might have a pre-existing condition or COPD for instance and if you’re outside in the heat or humidity, your cardiovascular and respiratory system is more pressured and there’s more likelihood of impact.”
Allen said that in times of continued heat warnings, people can begin to grow fatigued from the warnings and not heed them as they should. “There’s no ‘wow factor,’” Allen said. “Someone drinking water isn’t nearly as exciting, if you will, as a tornado ravaging a town.”