Amid a deadly heat wave, the number of people in Virginia seeking medical help for a heat-related illness has nearly doubled this month compared with last July.
As of Sunday, 1,062 people had visited emergency departments or free-standing urgent-care clinics for treatment of heat-related illness since July 1, compared with 584 in the same time period last year and 764 in 2017, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.
Dr. Parham Jaberi, chief deputy commissioner for public health and preparedness for VDH, said there have been four heat-related deaths in Virginia within the past week, including an infant who was left in a car in the Richmond area.
Jaberi said the three other people who died were older than 69 and included a woman who was working in her yard and a person who is believed to have been sitting in a vehicle.
Saturday — which hit 99 degrees in Richmond and felt like the hottest day in the city since 2012 — was the busiest day for heat-related emergency visits this month, with 169 people seeking medical attention.
“This is a serious public health threat,” Jaberi said. “Heat-related illness is a leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S.”
Jaberi said Virginia has been seeing an increase in temperatures and longer periods of extreme weather over time.
It’s an issue that Jaberi said his department is taking seriously as it plans to address public health threats in the years and decades to come. VDH sponsored its first summit on climate change earlier this summer, with scientists discussing research on temperature and climate trends.
“In 2030, we’re projected to have over 40 days of the kind of weather we just had this weekend,” Jaberi said. “We’re concerned about this long-term trend.”
In an effort to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths, VDH is working with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and local governments to increase awareness of the dangers of overheating.
VDH is encouraging people to:
- be aware of the signs of heat-related illness;
- avoid outdoor activity during the hottest hours in the afternoon;
- check on neighbors and friends; and
- not leave children or pets in a vehicle for any amount of time.
Jaberi also noted that localities open cooling stations where residents without access to air conditioning can go for relief.
“We want to remind individuals to avoid leaving any children or pets for any amount of time in the car,” he said. “There is really no safe amount of time.”
Young children, elderly people and people with chronic conditions, such as heart disease or kidney failure, have an increased risk of serious illness and death in the heat.
Symptoms of overheating include cramps, heavy sweating and headache. More serious heat exhaustion can cause dizziness and fainting.
“At that stage, you’re talking about a life-threatening condition,” Jaberi said. “That’s a 911 call. You have to get the person immediately to the emergency department.”
He added that even with cooler weather this week, the message still needs to get out that heat can be dangerous throughout the rest of this summer .
Jaberi said VDH will continue to look at the public health risks associated with increasingly hot weather, including the higher impact on urban areas — where there is less green space to absorb the heat.
“We need to think long-term about what this means,” he said.