Deadly Heat Wave in Pacific Northwest Overwhelmed Healthcare System
Emergency rooms overflowed, 911 calls doubled and ambulances were delayed when temperature rose above 100 for three straight days
As the temperature in Portland, Ore., soared past 100 degrees last week, Penny Clark’s body temperature rose as well. After sitting inside all day without air conditioning, the 79-year-old was running a fever of 102, and the friend she was staying with called 911.
Mrs. Clark, whose daughter said she had a weak heart, died of hyperthermia in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
“It just didn’t have to happen,” said Shelley Robertson, her daughter.
At least 118 people died in the record heat wave that engulfed the Pacific Northwest in late June, when Portland and Seattle hit record highs of 116 degrees and 108, respectively. Lytton, a village in British Columbia, reached 121 degrees. A wildfire destroyed most of its homes, and at least two people died.
Local governments opened cooling centers and asked apartment managers to check on residents who might be at risk. Still, the heat strained the healthcare system in a part of the country unaccustomed to extreme temperatures.
So far, 15 heat-related deaths have been reported in King County, home to Seattle, in addition to 103 across Oregon. Officials in British Columbia believe hundreds of deaths there might be related to the heat but haven’t released an official tally.
Dr. Jennifer Vines, health officer for Portland’s Multnomah County, said most of the 64 people known to have died there fit the same profile as Mrs. Clark: older, with pre-existing conditions and no air conditioning. Many were also socially isolated.
Emergency rooms were overflowing by the third straight day of temperatures above 100 degrees in Multnomah County, on Monday, June 28. Calls to 911 surged to twice their usual level, according to county and hospital officials.
At Legacy Health, a hospital system with six locations in the Portland area, some emergency rooms had up to 10 people waiting for beds, said Melinda Muller, interim chief medical officer. With other area hospitals full and ambulances backed up, hospitals struggled to transfer patients, a normal practice when a facility is near capacity.
“The ambulance service was busy taking care of other people, so there were some delays there,” Dr. Muller said. “It took longer to get people where they needed to go.”
Early last week, emergency-response times averaged 15 minutes, according to Multnomah County officials, more than double the usual time. A spokeswoman for the county’s ambulance service, American Medical Response, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the longer response times.
In British Columbia, the ambulance system reached a breaking point, said Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C. unions. At the peak of the heat wave, he said, dispatchers had a backlog of at least 200 calls.
“Our emergency dispatchers had no ambulances to send because they were tied up on other calls,” Mr. Clifford said.
Tom Harries was in his backyard in the Vancouver, British Columbia, area at around 10:30 p.m. on June 28 when his distraught neighbor approached, asking to use his phone to call 911. The neighbor needed help for his 60-year-old wife, who was having trouble breathing because of the heat, Mr. Harries said.
“It was impossible to get through,” Mr. Harries said. An ambulance arrived at around 11:10 p.m., and in a short time it was determined that his neighbor’s wife had died.
“I thought it was just appalling,” Mr. Harries said of the time it took to get help.
British Columbia’s health minister, Adrian Dix, said record calls were logged on consecutive days during the heat wave, topping out at 1,950 on June 28. Acknowledging the delayed response times, he said the province was preparing to hire hundreds of additional staff. “We need to transform our ambulance system into what the demands of the 21st century are,” he said.
The province’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said there were 719 deaths reported for the seven days ended Thursday, nearly three times as many as would normally occur in that time span.
“We suspect that many of the deaths are attributable to the heat,” Ms. Lapointe said.
Extreme heat has killed at least 166,000 people world-wide over the past two decades, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., more than 1,000 people died during a 1995 heat wave in the Midwest, including 465 in Chicago. A 2003 heat wave killed more than 70,000 people across Europe.
Research shows that extreme-heat events are becoming more common as climate change pushes up global temperatures. A study published last month in Nature Climate Change examining data from 1991 to 2018 found 37% of warm-season heat-wave deaths can be attributed to climate change.
The Pacific Northwest is accustomed to temperate summers. In Portland, the average high temperature for June 28, the day the heat peaked last week, is 77 degrees. About 79% of homes in the Portland area and 44% of those in the Seattle area have some form of air conditioning, according to the Census Bureau.
In Oregon, officials are seeking ways to better withstand heat waves in the future. A spokesman for Oregon Occupational Safety and Health said the agency was considering emergency rules for farms related to water and shade after one farmworker, a Guatemalan immigrant, died during the heat wave.
In another case, Tony Mathis was found dead at a homeless encampment in Salem, Ore., on June 28, according to Lisa Letney, who advocates for the city’s unsheltered population.
Mr. Mathis, 62, started showing signs of heatstroke on the afternoon of Saturday, June 26, when temperatures rose above 100 degrees, Ms. Letney said. He had stopped sweating and wasn’t fully coherent.
She and other volunteers gave him Gatorade and soaked his feet in cold water before helping him get to a cooling center.
The next day, Mr. Mathis was back at the camp and looked better. He said he didn’t plan on going to a cooling center that day because he was worried that there wouldn’t be a bus available to get him home once it closed, Ms. Letney said.
Most of the deaths in Oregon were among older people who stayed indoors, such as Mrs. Clark, known as Nene to her eight grandchildren.
Her daughter had searched for an air conditioner, but the only ones she could find during a surge in local demand cost more than $500, higher than Ms. Robertson, a teacher, could afford.
Ms. Robertson and her brother called regularly throughout the weekend, but their mother, who once survived a hurricane in Mississippi, insisted she was fine and didn’t need anything.
The heat finally broke Tuesday, after Mrs. Clark died.
“All she had to do was hold on one more day,” Ms. Robertson said.