Extreme heat in B.C.: Coroner investigating 3 deaths

The state’s fever record continues to rise, with the BC Coroner’s Office investigating three deaths suspected to be caused by a high fever this year, CTV News reported.

Although temperatures weren’t as extreme as 2021, which saw 619 deaths in a long, record-breaking hot dome, the state’s coroner’s office continues to investigate 16 deaths that were believed to be related to a similar heat wave last year.

“Extreme heat can be deadly,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief medical examiner for British Columbia. “There is no aggregate data analyzed for recent deaths, but certainly there was overwhelming evidence from the 2021 Death Investigation Board that older people, people with underlying medical conditions, and certainly unair-conditioned environments can cause some pretty serious effects.”

When CTV News asked if health care providers were more aware of the risks and therefore more likely to report suspected heat-related deaths than in the past, given the horrific death toll from the heat dome in 2021, Lapointe agreed it was possible and that it was affecting staff as well.

“This has certainly made us coroners more cautious about investigating fatalities in extreme temperatures,” she said. “People are not always aware of how hot they are getting. When confusion and fatigue start to set in, people become less aware and unable to help themselves.”

Health officials confront landlords

It’s in this context that the state’s two biggest health departments released a bulletin last weekend urging landlords and geographies to repeal ordinances and policies on air conditioning and other cooling devices, as the state experiences increasingly dangerously hot summers.

Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health also sent the following guidance: Landowners and Strata Association “Making life-saving decisions” that overturn aesthetics and building exterior considerations.

“We want people to think about how we can make room for these life-saving interventions,” said Dr. Emily Newhouse, medical health director at Fraser Health, advising people to think of heat as another indoor health threat. “For example, if carbon monoxide is present, it’s obviously not safe to stay in a place, and very high indoor temperatures can be life-threatening for high-risk people as well.”

She added that modern portable air-conditioning units are an energy-efficient option, are unlikely to overwhelm existing electrical infrastructure, and could turn one room in each home into a haven, especially for those who don’t have access to cooling centers that operate during heatwaves.

Both Newhouse and Lapointe believe climate change will continue to affect and exacerbate these problems, a message the prime minister echoed last month on the 2021 anniversary of the arrival of the heat dome over the state.

Many policies have changed since the devastating heat dome

Educating the public about the risks of extreme heat in the Lower Mainland, where residents have traditionally enjoyed or lamented a cool, wet climate, has been a challenge for public health officials. Public health officials themselves have not communicated the risks of heat domes to their medical colleagues and emergency planners in 2021, greatly underestimating the potential impact of extreme heat.

A government-commissioned analysis was conducted last month. Canadian Climate Instituteconcluded that improved planning and messaging, a modest free air conditioning program for high-risk British Columbians, and the introduction of a heat warning response system were positive lessons from the tragedy, but also made a number of recommendations.

The authors of The Case for Adaptation to Extreme Heat said mechanical cooling could save hundreds of lives while reducing health care costs and should be targeted for widespread adoption, stressing the need to strengthen government response and agency integration and coordination, among other proposals. B.C. Emergency Medical Services also confirmed that it did not step up its response with additional personnel or logistics until the majority of deaths had already occurred and temperatures began to drop.

The report found that on Lionsgate’s acute care floor, temperatures in some emergency departments exceeded 32 to 38 degrees Celsius, forcing hospital staff to buy fans and ice in some cases, and that temperatures in the room had rendered CT and MRI scanners at four hospitals inoperable, affecting the diagnosis and treatment of strokes, injuries and other serious health problems.

The Hardy View Lodge long-term care facility in Grand Forks was so hot that the sprinkler system was activated. Fraser Health installed a temporary cooler as an “overflow morgue” at Surrey Memorial Hospital, and surgeries were delayed at Burnaby and Langley Memorial Hospitals due to the heat.

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