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As Temps Rise, Two Public Health Crises Could Emerge: ‘It’s A Deadly Combination’

This week is the 25th Anniversary of the 1995 heat wave that killed hundreds of Chicagoans. As temperatures soar during a global pandemic, experts say it’s important to stay vigilant.

Activists hand out free food and water to protesters in the Lincoln Park neighborhood during a peaceful protest on June 2, 2020 in reaction to the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Even as Chicagoans grapple with the coronavirus pandemic residents now may have to contend with another heat wave this weekend. 

Temperatures could feel like 105 Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service. Chicagoans should prepare for the heat by drinking more water and staying in air conditioning, when possible. 

Additionally, the city will provide socially distanced cooling centers across the city. Find one in your area here.

Twenty years ago, the city was hit with a devastating heat wave that killed more than 700 people. People in disadvantaged communities, the elderly and people with disabilities comprised the majority of the victims. Many had no air conditioning. Others did not want to keep their doors and windows open for fear of crime.

Black residents made up one-third of the death toll.

The pandemic similarly has had a disproportionate effect on Black and Latino communities, as well as older people with greater risk of severe complications. However, it is young adults aged 18 to 29 who are driving increases in confirmed infections in Chicago and the state.

Dr. Steven Aks, an emergency room doctor at Cook County Health System, said the high temperatures amid a deadly pandemic is a unique circumstance. 

“I think that makes this a very different summer than really most people have experienced in their lifetime,” Aks said. 

Elderly people are more at risk for heat stroke and heat-related illnesses, Aks said.

Dr. Sabrina McCormick, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, said extended exposure to extreme heat quickly can lead to ill effects.

McCormick said certain populations of people are more at risk when weather conditions are so extreme. The lack of air conditioning poses an even greater risk as the pandemic urges people to spend most of their time indoors, McCormick said.

“The correlation between race, class and heat has not changed much when we look at the national scale,” McCormick said. “We really are very concerned for the potential of disproportionate or unequal effects of heat on different populations and different demographic groups including African Americans and Latinos.” 

The heat might tempt you not to wear a mask when outside. Don’t give into that impulse, Aks says. 

“Wearing a mask is challenging for some people. However, it’s of such  importance for the public health response for people to wear masks and prevent the spread of infection. Adding heat on top of that will provide additional challenges,” Aks said.

Aks said people should not avoid seeking out medical care for heat-related illness because of pandemic-related fears. Cook County Health System has adapted its care so it can be safer for patients, Aks said. 

“I really want to encourage people to know that things are safe at the hospital. We want them to come in, we’re happy to take care of them,” Aks said. “We’ve figured out systems to where we can separate COVID suspect patients from not, so I want to encourage people to access healthcare at this time.”

McCormick urged people to remain alert about heat conditions overnight, because the temperatures may not ease up as much as people expect. 

“The normal cycle of heat and cool exposure is that it’s hotter during the day and cooler at night,” McCormick said. “This is no longer true in cities a lot of the time because of what’s called the urban heat island effect.

“And so in those kinds of contexts, the city actually absorbs the heat during the day and releases it at night.”

Experts say regularly drinking water and avoiding caffeine and alcohol to stay hydrated is critical for avoiding heat-related illness.

If you have to be outside, physicians say wear light, loose-fitting clothing, put on hats and avoid dark-colored clothes. When outside, it can also help to wear sunscreen — don’t forget to get the back of your neck, ears and the top of your head if bald — and to take regular breaks to cool off.

Be alert for signs of overheating and dehydration in yourself and others: headaches, dizziness, weakness, muscle cramps and really moist or cool skin. Those are all signs of heat exhaustion, according to Dr. Jenny Lu, a physician with Cook County Health. If you feel these symptoms, you should go somewhere to cool off “immediately.”

Symptoms of heat stroke, a life-threatening condition, also include being weak and confused, Lu said.

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