Heat waves in U.S. southwest pose added threat amid pandemic

As people around them sat and napped, some sipping water in an air-conditioned shelter on another sweltering day in a summer of record-breaking heat, Gary Goodman and Lena Stewart spoke of the fatal dangers of living on the street.

“There’s been a lot of friends, a lot of people I know have passed away,” said Goodman, a 47-year-old California native. “I guess they don’t realize, like you know, the oncoming symptoms of heat exhaustion. So, we’ve been finding a lot of deceased people in the tents.”

Goodman and Stewart weren’t together but sat at nearby tables last week in the Phoenix Convention Center. They can’t say with certainty if those they know died as a direct result of the heat, but the numbers back up their suspicions.

Between June and August, Phoenix reported 50 days with a high temperature of at least 43 C, surpassing the record of 33 days set in 2011, and July and August were the hottest months ever in the nation’s fifth largest city.

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

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

Heat-related deaths up from last year

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

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

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

The high temperatures continued the first week of September with many cities coming off excessive heat warnings over the Labour Day weekend. Temperatures reached 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 for dehydration last year, when she would frequently ride the city’s metro train system to take advantage of its air conditioning.

Visitors to a ‘heat respite center’ inside the Phoenix Convention Center line up to receive lunch, Aug. 28. (Brian P. D. Hannon/The Associated Press)

“If you have limited means to mitigate yourself from temperatures like this, that can have a toll on your body,” National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Iniguez said. That includes heat exhaustion, heat stroke and, in extreme cases, death.

During the summer, the Maricopa Association of Governments co-ordinates a Heat Relief Regional Network of volunteers, businesses and organizations to provide cooled indoor locations, bottled water and collection sites for water donations. The Salvation Army also operates emergency relief stations on days with excessive heat warnings.

COVID-19 reduces shelter capacity

“We know it is serious. Here in Arizona we treat this like an emergency disaster that happens just like hurricanes in the South and we respond to the need because we know our resources can provide relief and can be lifesaving,” said Maj. David Yardley, The Salvation Army’s Phoenix program co-ordinator.

“It’s not just the homeless, it’s not just a certain age. It affects everyone. Our senior population doesn’t even have to go out, they could be indoors in their homes having issues with their air conditioning units.” 

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

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

Traditional service locations such as libraries and other municipal buildings were forced to close because of the pandemic, said Tamyra Spendley, a deputy director of Phoenix’s Human Services Department.

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

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

People are seen at the beach during a heat wave, Sunday, in Huntington Beach, Calif. Record high temperatures in the U.S. continued the first week of September with many cities coming off excessive heat warnings over the Labour Day weekend. (Christian Monterrosa/The Associated Press)

“This feels better. It’s more roomy, more space. The length of time that 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 into an overnight shelter.

The water is plentiful, which helps stave off potentially fatal dehydration, and he said the meals and especially the brisk air conditioning also make the summer more bearable.

The facility is expected to remain open through Sept. 30, and both Goodman and Stewart hope Phoenix continues the program in the coming years.

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

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