Heat deaths last year in Arizona’s largest county

PHOENIX (AP) – This summer was the deadliest ever recorded from heat-related deaths in Arizona’s largest county amid a growing wave of homelessness. Public health statistics this week confirmed a record 359 such deaths just days before the end of the six-month hot season.

The rise in deaths raises questions about how to better protect vulnerable people not only in the southwestern desert, where temperatures regularly reach triple digits, but also in more temperate areas where climate change has fueled more intense heat waves. frequent and lasting.

According to the National Weather Service, the highest temperature recorded this year at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was 115 degrees (46.1 C) on July 11, with mercury reaching 114 degrees (45, 5 C) on 11 June and on 16 and 22 July.

Heat-related deaths in Maricopa County this year exceeded 339 confirmed deaths in 2021 and the final number could be even higher, with another 91 deaths still under investigation.

The county has more than a decade of experience tracking heat deaths, but it’s hard to find comparable numbers in other areas like the Pacific Northwest, which has experienced intense heatwaves in recent years.

In California, researchers found that unprotected people, particularly those with a mental illness, were significantly more likely to end up in hospital during extreme heat than people in hospital, based on a study of emergency room admissions.

Nearly 80% of heat-related deaths in Maricopa County this year occurred outdoors, but preliminary heat reports for this year do not estimate how many of the deaths were among homeless people rather than people who they worked outdoors or were outdoors for other reasons.

But the increase comes amid a surge in people living outside the Phoenix subway, with hundreds of homeless people sleeping in downtown tents amid rising rents and evictions.

“With so many more homeless people, it makes sense that more people are dying from the heat,” said Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus in downtown Phoenix, which brings together agencies that assist the homeless.

He said about 900 people currently reside in campus shelters, with about 1,000 more in tents on streets outside the gated property. A year ago, there were about 300 people sleeping just off campus.

No information is yet available on the role of substance use in this year’s heat-related deaths.

But last year, substance use was a factor in 60 percent of those deaths in Maricopa County. Methamphetamine was found in 91% of deaths involving drugs and fentanyl, an opioid, was found in 30%. While fentanyl is more likely to cause an overdose, methamphetamine can create changes in the body that make a user more vulnerable to heat, increasing blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate.

Homelessness accounted for 38% of drug-related deaths in 2021.

Males, African Americans, Native Americans, and people aged 75 and over had the highest heat-associated death rates in the county in 2021.

David Hondula, director of the Year Office of Heat Response and Mitigation for the city of Phoenix, said last week in a report to the city council that his team is studying the numbers to understand what’s behind the rise in deaths. and as a program for next summer.

Hondula said requests for assistance to Phoenix firefighters during the summer are expected to end at least 10-20% above 2021.

City firefighters answered 1,670 heat-related service calls between April 1 and September 30, an increase of 13.6% over the same period in 2021. The highest call density came from urban areas central and downtown Phoenix.

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AP writer Christopher Weber contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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