Kafoury to speak about Multnomah County heat deaths Tuesday
Multnomah County officials will release a preliminary report on the disproportionate number of deaths in the county from the late June heat wave on Tuesday, July 13.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury is scheduled to speak to the press at the early morning briefing. Also speaking will be Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines, Emergency Management Director Chris Voss and Chief Medicolegal Death Investigator Kimberly DiLeo.
It will be the first press briefing with a top elected leader in the state since the June 25-28 fatal heat wave.
The excessive heat took a terrible toll on Oregonians. It is now suspected of killing at least 115 people, with most — 71 — in Multnomah County. That is a shockingly high number, considering the county only includes around 20% of the state population.
And it is even more shocking because the county says it has been preparing for just such a weather event for five years.
"Scientists have warned that extreme and deadly heat waves could begin to occur in the temperate Pacific Northwest because of a changing climate," the county said in a July 6 release. "In anticipation, beginning in 2016 the county began developing tools based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Climate and Health Intervention Assessment to help the county better respond."
In response to the deaths, Kafoury has promised a thorough review of how the county responded, which will include the demographics, types of housing, geographic locations and cooling circumstances surrounding the deaths of people confirmed to have died of hyperthermia, or having an abnormally high body temperatures. The review will begin with a preliminary report to be released this week that was not available when this issue of the Portland Tribune went to press.
Learning from the heat wave is critical because state emergency response officials believe there will be more in the future. Oregon Office of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps said climate change will cause more frequent life-threatening temperature spikes in coming years.
"It's important to note these events are not anomalies or outliers; they are indicators about what we can continue to expect," Phelps said during a Monday, July 12, press briefing.
But the preliminary Multnomah County report will not include such important information as the names and addresses of the people who died. That is different that the annual Domicile Unknown report released by county, which names every homeless person who died the previous year and where they died. Even routine law enforcement agency press releases about homicides and fatal crashes name the victims and the locations of their deaths.
"Many members of the media have requested the names and addresses of the people who died to help tell the stories of their lives and to better understand the circumstances of their deaths," county officials wrote when they announced the upcoming report, before adding that confidentiality rules prohibit the release of such information. "The county agrees that more information can help both account for the deaths and drive future policies and planning."
Based on the statewide information released to date, however, it appears the victims were overwhelmingly white, disproportionately male and disproportionately older. Although details are scarce, many if not most apparently lived alone and did not have air conditioning or even fans. At least one farmworker died working outside, prompting Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to direct Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt excessive heat rules long sought by farmworker advocates.
Only a handful of people of color are confirmed to have been killed to date — just about 10% of the 83 confirmed deaths. Hispanics alone make up 12% of the state population. Even more surprisingly, the ZIP code with the highest number of deaths, six, includes the affluent Pearl District in Northwest Portland.
That may well change when the final numbers and demographics eventually are released. In addition to Kafoury, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler have all said their agencies will review how they responded to the heat wave.
Phelps confirmed a statewide "after-action review" is being conducted during the Monday press briefing. He said it will look at the number and location of cooling centers; the speed and frequency with which health data is provided for emergency management; and how they communicate and think about risk.
"We need to move as quickly as we can to gain better understanding and be as proactive as possible in adjusting our response," Phelps said.
The full results of these reviews will not be known for months, however.
Death counts slow to come
Even the timing of the June 25-28 heat wave seemed cruel. Brown had just declared she would lift virtually all statewide COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on June 30. But people were driven indoors and many businesses shut down as the temperature soared to a record-shattering 116 in Portland on the final day of the so-called heat dome event.
And with two more months of summer, the threat of another fatal heat wave seems all too real.
The heat wave was over before the public learned it was deadly. The first death count was not publicly released by the Oregon State Medical Examiner until June 30, when the high temperature had fallen to 77 degrees. That was three days after the Multnomah County Medical Examiner reported the first heat-related death. Many more would be reported on the following two days, but the news was not immediately released to the public, either.
The county has defended its response in several releases by saying it mounted an all-hands-on-deck public health response beginning on June 23 that included opening large 24-hour cooling centers and nine cooling spaces, directly contacting tens of thousands of vulnerable elders, people with disabilities and pregnant women, distributing hundreds of fans, and sending more than 60 outreach teams into the field to reach people experiencing homelessness.
The response was hampered by the MAX light rail system shutting down at the height of the heat wave. The heavily promoted 211 referral telephone line has been criticized for an out-of-date recorded message that did not provide callers with the most recent information or connect them to transportation to the cooling sites. Phelps said the call center was not staffed over the weekend, which is being changed. The county also did not open 10 of the branch libraries closed because of COVID-19.
As first reported by The Oregonian, Portland Parks & Recreation rejected a request from the Joint Office of Homeless Services to open all community centers that were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioner Carmen Rubio is in charge of the parks bureau, and her office said there was not enough staff available because of previous layoffs caused by the pandemic. That happened despite the City Council loaning the bureau millions earlier this year to reopen the parks.
Most recent death figures
The Office of State Medical Examiner updated its figures on Friday, July 10. It said that 83 deaths were confirmed to be caused by hyperthermia. Another 32 are pending further investigation, and four deaths included in preliminary counts were not caused by the heat wave.
The release also include ethnicities of the deceased. The vast majority, 72, were white. Four were Hispanic, two were African America/Black, one was American Indian, one was Pacific Islander, one was Asian and no ethnicity was listed for two.
The majority of the victims, 64%, were male, compared to 49% of the population.
According to an earlier release, the victims also were disproportionately older. Seventy-four percent were over 60, compared to just 17% of the statewide population. Many are thought to have had underlying medical conditions which, like COVID-19, increased the chances of death.
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