Washington State Department of Health (DOH) officials are working on initiatives to ensure the health and safety of residents in case a heat wave is on the horizon.
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The state experienced an unprecedented heat wave from June 26th to July 2nd last year that caused 157 deaths along with many heat-related injuries. The heat wave was unprecedented in Washington, as the state saw 39 heat-related deaths from 2015-20, DOH Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said. DOH was tasked with several emergency support functions in response to the heat wave.
“We were responsible for coordinating public health, and mortuary and health care services,” Shah said. “We activated an incident management team, and they did heat injury surveillance, tabulating how many deaths were due to the severe weather and monitoring hospital capacity. We were in the middle of the COVID pandemic, so hospitals were already stressed. Then people were showing up with heat injuries.”
DOH officials coordinated with various community partners to establish cooling centers, and worked to distribute cooling center location information to the public. They also distributed information about independent measures residents could take to protect themselves.
“When you get into a geographical area where you’re having a newer event the public is not used to—they’re not thinking about 100-plus degree weather here—we have to respond in a way that fills in the gaps of action they can take,” Shah said. “When you look at the deep south, heat happens all the time, but people already know what to do.”
The pandemic sparked challenges to the state’s response as well, as officials had to provide guidance to their partners operating cooling centers to keep people safe from COVID.
“You didn’t want people to be cramped in a room,” Shah said. “And it was an opportunity to get people vaccinated, which some of our cooling centers did. It was an opportunity to remind our partners we were still in a pandemic, but had to get people out of harm’s way.”
DOH officials are working on several initiatives in case another heat wave arrives this summer. They are assisting with Gonzaga University’s Beat the Heat initiative in Spokane. DOH is sponsoring an AmeriCorps member to work with Gonzaga on that initiative.
DOH is also assisting with the Department of Commerce’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which uses federal block grant funds to help low-income households gain access to affordable air-conditioning services.
“We know those communities are disproportionately affected,” Shah said. “This is a reminder that this hits lower-socioeconomic communities harder.”
DOH is also working with Washington 211 to design a statewide map of cooling center locations. Residents will be able to call 211 to get information about them.
There is a lot of flexibility in establishing cooling centers, Shah said. They can be established in government buildings, community buildings, or in the private sector, although those in the private sector may not be as flexible with operating hours.
“It might be a good time to go to a mall or grocery store, but they can’t house you overnight,” Shah said. “But it offloads people during the day, which is the hottest time. They can be out of harm’s way then.”
A heat wave could increase the risk for wildfires as well. Last year’s heat wave and other extreme weather conditions have spurred DOH conversations around climate change, Shah said.
“We need to remind ourselves that these extreme weather events, until we have a good handle on our climate change, are going to happen,” he said. “Our climate is changing, and it’s causing us to have extreme weather events. But we have a role in preventing them in the first place. It’s a sign we need to do something about climate change. I think one of the key messages for us is climate adaptation.”