Monday, July 16, 2007

Heat victims can die without warning, complicating rescue efforts

Orange County Register: …A study of 140 victims whose deaths the state attributes to the heat wave found [that] …90 percent lived in poor areas; 80 percent were over age 50; 46 percent lived alone; most had other medical conditions such as heart problems respiratory disease or psychological trouble.

And most troubling, many died within hours after relatives or friends had checked on their well-being, according to the analysis by the California Department of Health Services. A survey of California's 58 counties revealed that 466 more people than average died during July 2006, a number many health experts attribute to the two weeks of triple-digit temperatures. The state's official toll is 143.

Heat waves have killed more Californians than all other disasters combined over the last 15 years, according to the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. An AP review of last summer's deaths revealed that the official tolls may drastically understate the actual number of heat-related deaths.

That reality is forcing state officials to consider how they can better reach the most vulnerable before they become victims and more accurately track those who do succumb to the heat.

More intense scrutiny by county or state officials could be triggered by reports that an abnormal number of domesticated animals are dying or by tracking an increase in ambulance calls or hospital admissions, said Frank McCarton, chief deputy director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Such signs can help tip officials that deaths may be caused by heat and not old age or an underlying medical problem. That is important not only to more accurately track the number of people who die but to take immediate steps to help the vulnerable, he said. But that also can prove an elusive goal.

A major lesson from last year's heat wave is that periodic checks by caregivers, friends or family members may not be enough, especially for seniors who live alone, said Dr. Kevin Reilly, the state health department's deputy director for prevention services.

Visitors need to turn on the air conditioning or take the elderly or infirm to cooling shelters, movie theaters, shopping malls – anywhere they can get a few hours' relief, Reilly said. In addition, social service workers and others might need to rethink which populations are most at risk.

…Laurence Kalkstein, who heads a climatology laboratory at the University of Miami, is working with San Francisco and San Jose to develop heat-warning systems to help vulnerable residents and the people who care for them.

An emergency plan developed by the state Office of Emergency Services after last year's heat wave calls for other steps, including increased protections for those who work outdoors and having social workers and National Guard troops transport people to cooling centers….

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