Maricopa County Investigating Rise In Heat-Related Deaths

Published: Monday, July 29, 2019 - 11:38am
Updated: Monday, July 29, 2019 - 3:10pm
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LAUREN GILGER: The death toll associated with heat in Maricopa County is on pace to exceed last year's, when 182 people died. As of July 20, Maricopa County Public Health Department reports there are 10 confirmed deaths and 63 cases under investigation. Despite having a pleasant spring, the heat this summer has been brutal. There have been 14 days with temperatures of 110 degrees and above. And this past weekend, nighttime temperatures cooled off to just 92 degrees. Joining me for the latest on heat associated deaths this summer is Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. Good morning, Dr. Sunenshine.

REBECCA SUNENSHINE: Good morning.

GILGER: So let's start with your assessment of where we are so far this year. What is the cause here?

SUNENSHINE: Well, what you just recently said — that we have identified 10 heat related deaths so far this season, and there are 63 cases under investigation — that is quite a few more than we saw at this time last year, where we have seven confirmed deaths and just 39 under investigation. So it is looking like it's going to be a pretty severe heat season.

GILGER: And what's behind this? I mean, we know that it gets this hot in Phoenix every summer. Is this people not getting the message and doing work outside or not drinking enough water when they shouldn't be? Or is this about people who are not in a position to get out of the heat?

SUNENSHINE: Well, we have two different types of folks that tend to succumb to heat related death. We've got about 60% or more of our deaths occur outdoors. And individuals who work outdoors are definitely more at risk for heat related deaths. Also, individuals who are experiencing homelessness. And it's really important that people are aware that when they're working outdoors or if they are outdoors to take frequent breaks in the shade or especially in the air conditioning. And for those who don't have shelter, there are cooling centers available in the Valley, and you can actually find a map of where all those cooling centers are on heataz.com

GILGER: In terms of the homeless population and those people who are experiencing homelessness at this time of year, how successful are efforts by the county and others to get people into air conditioning or at least get water to those folks? I mean, if you spend a little bit of time outside this weekend, you know how brutal that must be.

SUNENSHINE: Yeah. It's so incredibly hot out there. And the key is getting those individuals into the cooling centers. We are lucky to have a lot of community organizations and also government organizations, libraries and churches and other folks that do provide water and cooling centers, but people have to get there. And I think that's really the struggle. Another thing that we're struggling with is people will get really hot and exhausted and then they'll take a nap, and falling asleep outdoors in the sun — especially if the shade moves — it can be fatal.

GILGER: I want to also ask about indoor deaths related to heat. You mentioned that and, as you know, the Arizona Corporation Commission ordered APS to not shut off customers' electricity over the summer as a result of a story about a customer who may have died because of her air conditioning being shut off. Have you seen fewer indoor deaths this year as a result? Can you tell at this point of that will make a dent?

SUNENSHINE: Well it is too early to tell really how those changes are going to affect indoor related deaths. But I can say that every year we see anywhere from 30 to 40% of our deaths do occur indoors. And the folks who who die indoors typically are older individuals with chronic medical conditions. And that's why it's so important that we always go and check on our neighbors. Make sure they have their air conditioning turned on and that it's functioning.

GILGER: All right. That's Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. Thank you for coming on.

SUNENSHINE: Thanks for having me.

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