Physicians see more heat-related illnesses among field workers as heatwave continues
Each summer, as temperatures rise, doctors in the Phoenix area treat more patients with heat-related symptoms, but a deadly heatwave entering its fourth week, with temperatures reaching 110 degrees, is taking its toll on even the most heat-adapted populations.
Temperatures have been scorching hot since early June, starting in Texas.
Then in July a high-pressure ridge erupted across the southwest, and the heat hasn’t abated across the region for weeks.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport hit at least 110 degrees for 25 days.
“Due to the duration and simply the longer timeframe, we are seeing more than usual heat-related illnesses this year than in past summer seasons,” said Dr. Michael White, Chief Medical Officer of ValleyWise Health. “I’m counting that again because of the longer period of time that the temperatures were just so extreme.”
ValleyWise Health serves the Phoenix area, and White said cases of heat stroke or heat-related illness increase the longer the heat wave lasts.
“Particularly as we get later on, we’re seeing the volume increasing, but certainly the number of encounters and the number of patients seeking emergency services has also increased over this time, which in turn is leading us to higher rates of hospitalizations for heat-related illnesses,” White said.
The deadly US heatwave is causing a surge in heatstroke and heat exhaustion sufferers across the country, not just in more vulnerable populations.
Workers who know how to deal with hot temperatures are on the front lines of this heat wave.
White said they are still seeing people from vulnerable populations and those at increased risk of heat, but this year the ER is treating people who don’t normally come during the summer months.
“It’s probably this duration that we’re seeing; It’s about how often people are exposed to this intense heat,” White said. “The people who tend to work outside all day are people who work in construction or people who work in landscaping and so on. We are seeing more of these people this year than in previous years.”
In central Florida, Dr. Tim Hendrix, medical director of AdventHealth Centra Care, said by early summer he was usually ready to talk about heat exhaustion.
“The heat exhaustion hazard season is getting longer, and it used to be Florida only in June. We would experience severe heat exhaustion because June is dry, hot and there isn’t much cloud cover,” Hendrix said.
Florida has seen sweltering temperatures in the triple digits throughout July.
There is no cool dip in the sea that could give the heat-shy a respite.
Sea surface temperatures have turned the Atlantic and Gulf into a bathtub with water temperatures reaching 97 degrees in the Florida Keys.
At AdventHealth’s more than 50 emergency care locations, tourists come to the Orlando area during the summer vacation for the theme parks, unprepared for the heat and suffering from heat exhaustion.
This year, Hendrix said heat health concerns come from a different group.
“What we’re seeing more often at our Centra Care sites is people working outdoors, people exercising in the heat,” Hendrix said.
If you think that construction workers or other people who spend most of their time outdoors are more prone to heat illness, these are actually the people who are most immune to hot weather.
“Their bodies are used to this temperature,” Hendrix said. “But what we’re seeing now is because it’s just hot every day, and then the temperatures are higher than normal, the humidity is high, even the field workers who are reasonably able to cope succumb to the heat.”
In the two weeks since July 4th, the number of heat-related patients arriving at AdventHealth Centra Care locations throughout Central Florida has doubled.
Inflatable pools made of ice and cold infusion fluids
When a heat stroke victim is brought to Valleywise Health, emergency medical teams work quickly to lower the person’s body temperature, sometimes as low as 106 degrees.
“We’re starting to do things to help people actively cool, whether it’s cold blankets or water-soaked things that we put on patients,” White said. “We have some things that we can put on our beds to actually put ice around our patients to help them cool, cool, and cool back faster.”
Sometimes patients are placed in an inflatable pool bed filled with ice and given cold IV fluids.
The goal is to lower body temperature within the first 30 minutes to an hour.
Depending on how long someone has been exposed to the heat, there can be lasting effects on multiple organs.
“As people’s body temperatures rise, we start to see problems with muscle breakdown, with problems that can develop into heart, kidney and lung problems,” White said.
Some patients may recover quickly and without long-term problems.
Meanwhile, others may need to stay in the hospital for a while.
White said that the very young or elderly in extreme age are not as resilient to heat-related problems, but the unstoppable heatwave has been dangerous for people of all ages.
“For the temperatures that we’ve seen, and certainly the duration that we’ve seen, we’ve seen that across the age continuum,” White said.
The medical community is preparing for extreme heat
According to the World Meteorological Organization, heat is one of the deadliest weather-related causes.
Dozens of heat-related deaths have been reported across the country, including 18 in Maricopa County, Arizona, and 15 across Texas.
Fourteen children have died this year because they were left in hot vehicles.
Medical communities are preparing for even more extreme heat waves, and both doctors who spoke to FOX Weather said communicating these risks will be crucial.
“Don’t think that just by drinking water all day and walking through amusement parks all day, you can prevent heat exhaustion,” Hendrix said. “The things we do outdoors that increase our body temperature, like exercising and working, these metabolic processes usually increase body temperature, but then the heat stress from the sun weighs on you.” The temperature is high; the humidity is high. All of these things will work against you and increase your body temperature.”
That means you need to plan carefully during the summer months.
Hendrix said you shouldn’t wait until noon to mow the lawn, and if you have a day planned at Disney World, schedule time for air-conditioning breaks.
White said it’s also about protecting workers who are exposed to extreme temperatures.
“Can we shift it so that during times when they’re not doing some of these things outside in the heat of the day, people work earlier?” White said. “This is how we are able to protect people in such environments.”