As the province continues to see more broken heat records, the BC Coroners Service is investigating three deaths where hyperthermia is suspected as the cause this year, CTV News has learned.
While the temperatures haven’t been nearly as extreme as 2021 when 619 people died during a prolonged, record-shattering heat dome, the province’s coroners are still investigating the deaths of 16 people believed to be related to extreme heat last year as well.
“Extreme heat can be fatal,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner for the province of British Columbia. “We don’t have aggregate data analyzed for the more recent deaths, but certainly there was overwhelming evidence from the 2021 death review panel that people who are older, people with underlying health conditions, certainly that environment where there’s no air conditioning…has the potential for causing some pretty severe impacts.”
When CTV News asked if health-care providers were more aware of the risks given the horrific death toll of the 2021 heat dome and thus more likely to report suspected heat-related deaths than they had been in the past, LaPointe agreed that’s possible and has had implications for her staff as well.
“It certainly has caused us as coroners to be far more thoughtful about the investigation of any deaths in extreme temperatures,” she said. “People aren’t necessarily aware of how hot they’re becoming and as confusion and fatigue starts to set in, people are less aware, less able to help themselves.”
HEALTH AUTHORITIES CONFRONT LANDLORDS
It’s within this context that the province’s two largest health authorities published a bulletin late last week urging landlords and stratas to remove bylaws or policies against air conditioning or other cooling devices as the province increasingly sees hotter summers with dangerously high temperatures.
Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health also sent their guidance to landlord and strata associations to “make lifesaving decisions” that overrule considerations about aesthetics or building envelope.
“We want people to consider how they can make space for these life-saving interventions,” said Fraser Health’s Medical Health Officer, Dr. Emily Newhouse, who advised thinking of heat as another indoor health threat. “For example, with carbon monoxide it’s obviously not safe to stay there when it’s present and really high indoor temperatures can be just as threatening for people who are at high risk.”
She added that modern portable air conditioning units are energy efficient options that are unlikely to overwhelm existing electrical infrastructure while allowing a single room in each home able to provide a refuge, particularly for those who are unable to access cooling centres activated during heat waves.
Both Newhouse and LaPointe believe climate change will continue to impact and exacerbate these issues, a message echoed by the premier last month on the anniversary of the 2021 heat dome’s arrival over the province.
MANY POLICIES HAVE CHANGED SINCE CATASTROPHIC HEAT DOME
Educating the public about the risks of extreme heat in the Lower Mainland, where residents have traditionally enjoyed or lamented the cool, wet climate, has been a challenge for public health officials – who themselves didn’t communicate the risks of the heat dome to their own medical colleagues or emergency planners in 2021, and dramatically underestimated the potential impacts of the unusual heat event.
Last month, a government-commissioned analysis by the Canadian Climate Institute, concluded that improved planning and messaging, a modest free air conditioning program for high-risk British Columbians, and the implementation of Heat Alert Response System had been positive learnings from the tragedy but they also made a number of recommendations.
The authors of “The Case for Adapting to Extreme Heat” wrote that mechanical cooling could save hundreds of lives while reducing health-care costs and should be targeted for widespread deployment, while emphasizing there needs to be a greater integration and coordination of government response and agencies, among other suggestions. It also confirms that BC Emergency Health Services did not ramp up its response with extra staff and logistical support until the bulk of the deaths had already happened and the temperatures had started subsiding.
The report revealed that in some cases, hospital staff had to buy fans and ice after some emergency departments surpassed indoor temperatures of 32 degrees – 38 degrees in the case of Lion’s Gate’s acute care floor, while CT and MRI scanners at four hospitals were inoperable due to the indoor temperatures, impacting the diagnosis and treatment of strokes, injuries, and other serious health issues.
In Grand Forks, the Hardy View Lodge long-term care home was so hot that the sprinkler system activated. In Fraser Health they brought in temporary coolers as an “overflow morgue” at Surrey Memorial Hospital and surgeries were delayed at Burnaby and Langley Memorial hospitals due to the impacts of the extreme heat.