Aug 18, 2021 - Health

Extreme heat exposes new vulnerabilities for Pacific Northwest hospitals

Portland residents stay cool in a public fountain filled with soap suds during a heatwave
Portland residents stay cool in a public fountain filled with soap suds during a heatwave. Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The extreme heatwaves that blasted the Pacific Northwest this summer exposed a new reality for hospitals that were overwhelmed by patients with heat-related illnesses.

Why it matters: State and local health departments in Washington and Oregon report those who succumbed to heat-related illness were often older, with pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions and had no air con­di­tion­ing. Many were also so­cially iso­lated.

  • Officials say they expect this summer's heat is only a preview of what to expect in the future.

The big picture: Nearly 200 million Americans were under some level of heat advisory last week, with many more experiencing compounding effects from the wildfires in California or poor air quality carried by wildfire smoke.

What’s happening: Heat-related hospitalizations typically peak in Oregon at 81°F, according to a 2019 study. The state reached 116°F in late June, which contributed to a staggering 1,038 visits to the ER in Washington and Oregon that occurred on June 28 alone, the CDC later analyzed.

  • "When you aren't used to extreme heat, you may not actually realize how dangerous it is," said Renee Salas, emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital on Tuesday during an event hosted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
  • Lo­cal gov­ern­ments like Portland's Multnomah County have tried to make its 211 hotline available and cool­ing cen­ters open.

Zoom out: Fire season and heatwaves also strain hospital infrastructure unaccustomed to function in extreme weather, Salas said.

  • Hospitals have to often run on generators when electric utilities may shut off power to either avoid sparking fires or creating systemwide blackouts.

The bottom line: Local hospitals could see yet another wave of patients as the Pacific Northwest enters a second summer heatwave.

  • Long term, they say, major infrastructure overhauls and better electronic medical reporting will need to monitor heatwaves and better respond.
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