Months later, heat-wave related deaths continue to rise
The number of people killed by high heat this year keeps getting higher.
The Multnomah County Medical Examiner's Office has increased its official total of heat-related fatalities in 2021 from 62 to 73. While most of those fatalities died during the record-shattering "heat dome" that stretched from June 25 to 29 — when temperatures reached a high of 115 degrees — five occurred at other times, following stretches of high temperatures.
The five non-heat dome-related deaths occurred during other periods of intense heat in June before the record-breaking heatwave. The first came after a three-day stretch where high temperatures ranged from 88 to 95 degrees. The second happened after a 95-degree day.
The last three deaths happened on Aug. 16 and 18, following a five-day stretch where high temperatures ranged from 92 to 102 degrees.
The new figures add to what was already a grim year for Oregon heat-related deaths. For all of Oregon, between 2017 and 2019, there were only 12 deaths from heat.
The Oregon Medical Examiner's Office lists the statewide count for 2021 is currently 107. The office did not respond to a Portland Tribune request for an update.
The City Council approved a five-year, $11,5 million program to provide heat pumps and cooling units inside 15,000 homes and apartments on Wednesday, Dec. 1. The program will be financed by the Portland Clean Energy Fund and aimed at low-income and minority households.
The medical examiners focus on those who die without an attending physician and consider a heat death to be hyperthermia, which occurs when the body becomes dangerously overheated, usually in response to prolonged hot weather.
But the total number of people killed by heat in Oregon is likely much higher, said Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. Other kinds of deaths increase as the temperature rises.
"Hyperthermia is just one of the ways that heat affects health," she said. "For example, deaths from drownings and from violence also increase during heat. It's also possible that underlying conditions were exacerbated by heat, but that heat was not found to be the cause of death. Generally, deaths among individuals under the care of physicians are not investigated by medical examiner staff."
The heatwave forced many to visit the emergency room during the crisis. The Oregon Health Authority reported more than 500 people were hospitalized for heat-related illnesses from the tri-county area during the heat dome. In Multnomah County, doctors reportedly treated 131 people in emergency rooms or urgent care centers.
According to comprehensive demographic and other information previously released by the state and county, most of those who died from the heat were older and lived alone without air conditioning or fans.
The New York Times reported last summer that 159 more people died than average during the five-day period of the most extreme temperatures.
"Almost all of those deaths are preventable" Kristie Ebi, a professor in the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington, said in the New York Times article. "The more we understand about these deaths, the better we can prepare."
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