Heatwaves in southwestern United States pose additional threat amid pandemic

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As people around them sat and took a nap, some sipping water in an air-conditioned shelter on another sweltering day in a record-breaking summer, Gary Goodman and Lena Stewart spoke of the deadly dangers of living in the street.“There have been a lot of friends, a lot of people I know have passed away,” said Goodman, 47, from California. “I guess they don’t realize, as you know, the impending symptoms of heat exhaustion. So we found a lot of dead people in the tents. “

Goodman and Stewart weren’t together but sat at nearby tables last week at the Phoenix Convention Center. They can’t say for sure whether those they know died as a direct result of the heat, but the numbers support their suspicions.

Between June and August, Phoenix reported 50 days with a high temperature of at least 43 C, surpassing the 33-day record set in 2011, and July and August were the hottest months in the history of the fifth plus. big city of the country.

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related death in the United States. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that more people are killed by heat on average than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and lightning combined.

The CDC notes that community cooling centers help protect the public during heat emergencies, but this summer they also increased the risk of coronavirus by bringing together groups of people at risk.

Heat-related deaths up from last year

In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, authorities reported 55 confirmed heat-related deaths as of August 29, up from 38 last year.

The county tracks heat-related deaths from May through October. According to the Department of Public Health Administration’s website, 266 cases are under investigation, about double the 134 cases last year.

The record heat wasn’t just in Phoenix, as several desert cities across the Southwest saw triple-digit temperatures and new record highs, including Las Vegas; El Centro, California; and El Paso, Texas.

High temperatures continued into the first week of September, with many cities issuing excessive heat warnings over the Labor Day weekend. Temperatures hit a record 46 C in Phoenix, 46 C in Las Vegas and 49 Celsius in El Centro over the weekend.

Stewart, 57, said she was hospitalized with dehydration last year, when she frequently used the city subway to take advantage of her air conditioning.

Visitors to a “heat respite center” inside the Phoenix Convention Center line up to receive lunch on August 28. (Brian PD Hannon / The Associated Press)

“If you have limited means to mitigate yourself in the face of such temperatures, it can take a toll on your body,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Iniguez. This includes heat exhaustion, heat stroke and, in extreme cases, death.

Over the summer, the Association of Maricopa Governments coordinates a regional heat relief network of volunteers, businesses and organizations to provide chilled indoor locations, bottled water and collection sites. for water donations. The Salvation Army also operates emergency first aid stations on days of excessive heat warning.

COVID-19 reduces shelter capacity

“We know this is serious. Here in Arizona we are treating this as an emergency disaster that is happening like hurricanes in the south and we are responding to the need because we know our resources can provide relief and can save lives, ”said the Maj. David Yardley. , Salvation Army Phoenix Program Coordinator.

“It’s not just the homeless, it’s not just a certain age. It affects everyone. Our senior population doesn’t even need to go out, they might be inside their house and have issues with their air conditioning units.

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Jennifer Franklin, spokesperson for Maricopa County, said the extreme heat is an annual public health challenge, but this year has been unprecedented.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for physical distancing, the capacity of local shelters was reduced by necessity, and the space for heat relief was limited,” she said.

Traditional service sites such as libraries and other municipal buildings have been forced to close due to the pandemic, said Tamyra Spendley, deputy director of the Phoenix Department of Human Services.

In response, officials converted the south building of the Phoenix Convention Center into a “heat respite center,” providing relief not only from the beating sun and soaring temperatures, but also from the coronavirus.

Spendley said the area could accommodate up to 250 people and that since opening in late May officials have recorded more than 17,000 visits.

People are seen at the beach during a heatwave Sunday in Huntington Beach, California. Record-breaking temperatures in the United States continued into the first week of September, with many cities issuing excessive heat warnings over the Labor Day weekend. (Christian Monterrosa / The Associated Press)

” It’s better. It’s more spacious, more space. The time we can spend here is, you know, more than generous, ”Goodman said.

He said he tries to arrive around 9 a.m. and stay until 6 p.m. when he can check in to a shelter overnight.

Water is plentiful, which helps to avoid life-threatening dehydration, and he said the meals and especially the brisk air conditioning also made the summer more bearable.

The facility is slated to remain open until September 30, and Goodman and Stewart are hopeful that Phoenix will continue the program for years to come.

“For the majority of people it has been a godsend for them,” said Stewart.

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