2021 heat dome now linked to 619 deaths of primarily elderly, at-risk people

2021 heat dome now linked to 619 deaths of primarily elderly, at-risk people

More people died in last year’s heat dome than originally believed and a higher proportion of victims were elderly or suffered chronic mental or physical illnesses, according to a new report from the BC Coroner’s Service.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe released her report Tuesday on the wave of extreme heat linked to the deaths of 619 people — up from 595 victims as as previously stated — in late June and early July 2021.

Temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius for days during the extreme weather event, during which the coroners service says it “responded to a sudden and significant increase in reported deaths.”

Lapointe found that more than two-thirds of the victims were 70 or older and 56 per cent lived alone. She also found deaths were higher among people with specific chronic diseases including schizophrenia, substance-use disorder, epilepsy, pulmonary disease, depression, asthma, mood and anxiety disorders and diabetes.

The majority of people who died lived in “socially or materially deprived neighbourhoods” and did not have cooling systems, according to the report. The highest concentration of deaths (74 per cent) were in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health authorities.

The report also notes that 911 calls doubled during the heat dome, leading to some victims waiting for help for an extended amount of time.

“In 50 instances, paramedics took 30 minutes or longer from the time of the call until they arrived at the scene,” the report said. “In 17 instances, 911 callers were placed on hold for an extended period. In six instances, callers were told that there was no ambulance available at the time of their call.”

A panel of subject-matter experts made three recommendations to the province on how to prevent similar deaths in future extreme weather.

The first recommendation, to implement a coordinated provincial heat alert, was addressed by the B.C. government a day earlier, with the province announcing it would implement a two-tiered response to alert residents in extreme heat events.

The other recommendations including identifying and supporting populations most at risk of dying during heat emergencies, and implementing long-term prevention and risk-mitigation strategies.

“We know that weather-related emergencies caused by climate change will continue to challenge us as individuals and as a province,” said Lapointe. “We must learn what we can from the tragic loss of life last summer to support future awareness and focused public health and safety strategies. I am encouraged by the work already underway across ministries and organizations, and believe that the panel’s recommendations will support improved outcomes for people in B.C., should similar heat events occur in the future.”

Under the new heat response protocol announced Monday, the province would trigger a tier one response if Environment and Climate Change Canada says daytime temperatures will reach a certain temperature, Then, if nighttime temperatures do not fall below a certain number, the second tier would be triggered if certain temperatures are expected for three days in a row.

The regional temperatures are:

  • Southwest: daytime high of 29 C, nighttime low of 16 C (including Vancouver Island, except the northern part)
  • Fraser: daytime high of 33 C, nighttime low of 17 C
  • Southeast (Largely interior region of BC): daytime high of 35 C, nighttime low of 18 C
  • Northeast: daytime high of 29 C, nighttime low of 14 C
  • Northwest: daytime high of 28 C, nighttime low of 13 C (including northern Vancouver Island)

The alerts will be sent through the national alerting system to inform people of the incoming heat.

The report is also recommending changes to BC’s building code, according to Dr. Jatinder Baidwan, Chief Medical Officer, BC Coroner’s Service.

“Building codes in BC do not consider cooling in the same manner as they consider heat. As codes are revised, they will need to reflect the latest climate science, and our reality that we face.”

The executive director of the Victoria Residential Builders Association, Casey Edge, said those changes are coming to not only BC, but across the country.

“The national building code is looking at this issue now, and they are basing a lot of their investigation on what happened in BC in relation to the heat dome, and the deaths that occurred.”

Victoria’s mayor, Lisa Helps, said installing heat pumps in older buildings that can blow cool air makes sense in a city with a large population of seniors.

“That is the best case scenario because it’s going to save money in the long term. Save fossil fuels, and keep people in those buildings cool in the summertime.

Calls to 9-1-1 doubled during the heat dome.

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics & Dispatchers of BC union, said he is concerned that resources won’t keep up, again, if it happens this summer.

“There’s nothing that addresses the capacity or the ability of the ambulance service, that I can see, should this happen tomorrow again.”

The report also recommends identifying, vulnerable populations including those with medical conditions, and provide them with cooling equipment such as fans and air conditioners.

Jeff LawrenceJeff Lawrence

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