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Record-breaking heatwave blamed for spike in deaths in Pacific north-west

Record-breaking heatwave blamed for spike in deaths in Pacific north-west

The scorching heatwave that has shattered temperature records in the Pacific north-west is being blamed for hundreds of deaths and thousands of emergency calls and hospital visits in the region, which includes Oregon, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia.

As cooler temperatures began to bring some relief to the region, which has sweltered under record-setting temperatures of up to 118F (47C) over the last five days, health officials were just beginning to take stock of the horrendous health effects of the heat on the region’s population.

In Oregon, state officials blamed the heat for 62 deaths. In Washington, the Seattle area alone reported 13 deaths, while at least 486 “sudden and unexpected” deaths have been reported in British Columbia, Canada, which officials say represents a 195% increase above normal.

“The dust is settling on what has happened here and it still feels pretty intense,” said Dr Jennifer Vines, the health officer for Multnomah county, Oregon, which includes Portland. “We’re seeing a spike in deaths.”

The county has counted 45 people it believes died of heat-related causes, with ages ranging from 44 to 97. Vines said the reports included people found in overheated cars and elderly people alone in their un-air-conditioned apartments.

With temperatures reaching 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit above what people are used to, the city of Vancouver reported 65 sudden deaths under investigation, with the “vast majority … related to heat.”

“Vancouver has never experienced heat like this, and sadly dozens of people are dying because of it,” said Sergeant Steve Addison, spokesman for the Vancouver police department. “Our officers are stretched thin, but we’re still doing everything we can to keep people safe.”

Temperatures shot up to 112F in normally cool, coastal Portland and 118F in British Columbia, leaving residents baking in un-airconditioned apartments and taking dangerous dives into lakes and rivers.

The combination of heat-related illnesses, water injuries and even increased violence levels, has left hospitals and emergency providers struggling to respond to the flood of people needing help. Washington reported at least one drowning and Oregon reported elevated numbers of hospital visits for non-fatal drownings and symptoms related to exposure to bacteria in lakes and waterways.

In a single weekend the Portland area got more emergency department and urgent care visits than it would usually see in an entire summer, officials there said, seeing a record-breaking 491 emergency 911 calls on Monday alone.

The emergency room in Portland’s Oregon Health and Science University hospital was so swamped that the state trauma center had to turn away transfers from other hospitals, said Dr Bory Kea, an associate professor of emergency medicine there.

“We’ve had people coming in for fatigue and fainting and, for some, the heat has worsened pre-existing conditions like heart disease and diabetes,” she said. “There has also been significant amounts of trauma [like shootings and assaults] over the past days. It’s likely that the heat has contributed to aggressiveness and violence.”

In Seattle, firefighters responded to a record number of calls on Monday, ranging from reports of heat exhaustion and small brush fires cropping up in the dry, hot weather. They went around the city distributing ice packs and water to the homeless and helping to get isolated elders to cooling shelters.

“Our firefighters did not sleep on Monday,” said public information officer Kristin Tinsley.

Medical officials were investigating whether heat caused the deaths of two homeless individuals, who were each found in a homeless encampment in Bend, Oregon. The district attorney of Dechutes county said the causes of deaths of 60-year-old Alonzo Boardman and 64-year-old Joseph Davis, who were found in separate places in the encampment hours apart on Sunday, did not appear to be violence, but he was waiting for a final determination from the medical examiner.

There were also reports of agricultural field workers and delivery drivers suffering heat-related emergencies as well.

The Associated Press reported that heat may have claimed the life of a worker at a plant nursery in Oregon. The unidentified man who died was from Guatemala and had apparently arrived in the United States only a few months ago. State occupational health officials said he was working on a crew moving irrigation lines near Salem on Saturday amid sweltering temperatures.

While temperatures have now dropped enough for life to return to normal, health officer Vines said she worried that the climate emergency was bringing an escalating onslaught of fires and weather disaster that health officials cannot contend with.

“It seems like it’s just speeding up,” she said, adding that in the past 12 months the region has had historic fires, heatwaves, black days caused by smoke pollution and unusual ice storms. “ There was the belief that this was maybe five or 10 years away. And yet it seems to be happening now.


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