The New York Times is reporting that the late June heat wave may have killed many more people in Oregon and Washington than officially reported.
The newspaper reported on Thursday, Aug. 12, that 605 more people died than would have been typical during the heat wave, according to its analysis of mortality data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is three times the states' official estimates of heat-related deaths so far.
"The Times' estimate 'is entirely consistent with a large body of knowledge indicating that days of extreme heat are dangerous and can lead to excess deaths,' said Greg Wellenius, a professor in environmental health at Boston University who has studied heat-related mortality," according to the story.
The Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office has put the official heat wave-related death count at 96. But the Times said the CDC data shows 159 more people died than would have been typical during that period.
According to the article, the state of Washington blames the heat wave for 95 deaths. But the CDC data shows that 446 more people died than would have been typical.
Multnomah County Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines agrees the heat probably contributed to more deaths than officially reported so far. The Oregon State Medical Examiner is focused on those who died of hyperthermia, which occurs when the body becomes dangerously overheated, usually in response to prolonged hot weather. But Vines told the Portland Tribune it is well known that other kinds of deaths increase with the heat.
"Hyperthermia is just one of the ways that heat affects health. 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," Vines said.
Vines also said that many other deaths are still under investigation, noting that the Oregon Health Authority data suggests there were 86 excess deaths in Multnomah County during the week of the June heat wave. That is more than the 59 confirmed by the Multnomah County Medical Examiner.
The Oregon Medical Examiner's Office said a few more hyperthermia deaths have been confirmed but not publicly released because the next of kin have not been notified. About 20 other cases are still being investigated, said Oregon State Police Captain Timothy Fox, the office's spokesperson.
The Times article was published as the two states are in the third heat wave of the summer. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Multnomah County Chair Debra Kafoury and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler all have declared heat-related states of emergency.
The article includes: "Understanding the full consequences of extreme heat on health is important because it can help communities better plan for future heat waves, which are becoming more common as the world warms. 'Almost all of those deaths are preventable,' said Kristie Ebi, a professor in the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington. "The more we understand about these deaths, the better we can prepare."
The New York Times story can be found here.
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