Cities Brace For 'Collision Course' Of Summer Heat Waves And COVID-19
Aaron McCullough brought his 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, to a playground in a leafy, residential suburb of Rochester, New York, on a day in mid-June when temperatures topped out at 94 degrees.
The playground is one of seven spray parks in the city that offer cooling water to area residents whenever temperatures exceed 85 degrees.
Except during a pandemic.
"I was hoping that one of these water parks could open up and at least spray a little bit of water on us," McCullough said.
Instead, he said, sweat dripping off his face, "There's no water around at all."
All of the city's spray parks and air-conditioned cooling centers were shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"Gathering in close proximity and engaging in physically strenuous behavior like running around the spray park appears to be a likely possibility for transmission," says city spokesperson Justin Roj.
McCullough had bought Ariana a milkshake before they came to the park. It melted in his hand as she played on the slide.
"We're not staying much longer," he said. "If there were water, we'd be here till sundown."
Rochester announced it plans to soon reopen spray parks with restrictions on the number of people who can use them at one time
Across the country, authorities are finding that their usual strategies for protecting people against heat-related health problems are in direct conflict with their strategies for containing the virus — and with record-breaking high temperatures already recorded in some places before summer even began, those conflicts are likely to become more frequent.
"COVID-19 and climate change are on a collision course," says New York City emergency management department spokesperson Omar Bourne.
"There is no question that the challenges we face this summer are unprecedented."
The balance between preventing COVID-19 and preventing heat-related illnesses is a tough one, experts says.
"I am very grateful that I am not responsible for making that very complicated decision," says Dr. Andrea Miglani, the medical director of the emergency department at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.
The first symptoms of overheating cause what doctors call "heat exhaustion." They include heavy sweating, elevated pulse, tiredness, weakness and dizziness.
"But it's when we cross into heat stroke that we get really worried," Miglani says. At that point, she says, the body loses its ability to control temperature. The pulse races, sweating stops, and elevated body temperature presents a danger of brain damage.
Miglani says one hot day might result in a slight bump in heat-related hospitalizations, but she said several hot days can bring cumulative effects, and the death toll can climb. People with underlying health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and those older than 65, are especially at risk — just like with COVID-19.
Making matters worse, movie theaters, libraries and restaurants — places that are normally reliably air-conditioned respites on hot days — aren't open in many parts of the country, says Miglani.
About 90% of households in the U.S. have air conditioning, according to federal census figures. But access is not evenly distributed. Poor and minority communities tend to suffer disproportionately during heat waves, but they have a much lower prevalence of air conditioning compared to richer, whiter neighborhoods.
The decision about whether and how to open cooling centers during the pandemic needs to happen on a local level, says Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist on the steering committee of the Global Heat Health Information Network.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidelines for cities and states to deal with the competing problems. Suggestions include offering more assistance for people to pay their utility bills so that they maintain air conditioning at home, having fever checks for people at cooling centers and a separate room for anyone with symptoms and making masks and hand sanitizers available at the centers. Utility companies could also be required not to cut off anyone's power during heat emergencies, the CDC suggests.
Across upstate New York, cities kept cooling centers closed earlier this month, even when temperatures surpassed 90 degrees.
In Los Angeles County, officials opened cooling centers when temperatures spiked, but they required masks and limited the number of people who could be inside at one time.
That might offer an example of how to cool off the people most vulnerable to heat-related health problems without drastically increasing the risk of COVID-19, Ebi says.
But, she acknowledged, what works in Los Angeles might not work in other places. "We've all got different infrastructure, different access to air conditioning, different public transport systems," she says.
"The balance of risk is different everywhere," Ebi says.
There is one piece of the puzzle that doctors says is the same everywhere: checking on friends, family and neighbors.
"This is another time when it's important to emphasize the difference between social distancing and physical distancing," says Miglani.
"Give them a call, leave them a note on their door, find out what you can do to help. A lot of times, very simple gestures can go a very long way," she says.
This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes WXXI, Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
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