The New York City Health Department is warning medical providers that although power has been restored in the city, thousands of New Yorkers are still living without heat in their homes, resulting in a soaring number of recent hypothermia cases. In the weeks after Sandy hit, cold exposure sent three times as many people to the emergency room compared to the same period in November between 2008 and 2011. And public health officials are worried that the problem will worsen in the upcoming winter months:
The department warned health care providers that residents living in unheated homes faced “a significant risk of serious illness and death from multiple causes.” […]
And as temperatures dip, health officials said the cold could lead to other health problems, including a worsening of heart and lung diseases and an increase in anxiety and depression.
“My bigger concern is what happens in the future as we get closer to winter in the next four weeks,” Dr. Thomas A. Farley, the city’s health commissioner, said in an interview. “There are probably about 12,000 people living in unheated apartments right now.”
Some people still living without heat are turning to ovens or gas-fueled space heaters, but public health officials advise against those temporary solutions because of the increased risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning. Without proper ventilation, back-up generators can cause unsafe levels of carbon monoxide in the air — and sure enough, in the week after Sandy, the number of cases of potentially fatal carbon monoxide exposure was more than 10 times higher than average, and 6 times as high the following week. The city’s health department also reported that calls to New York City’s poison center have increased over the past month.
New Yorkers’ increased risk of health dangers is especially problematic because the city’s hospital system is not yet operating at full capacity after the superstorm seriously damaged several medical facilities, forcing some hospitals that flooded and lost power to evacuate their patients to different locations. The director of trauma at Bellevue Hospital — New York’s flagship public hospital, which had to spread its staff and patients across other buildings after Sandy devastated its own facilities — told ProPublica that even though hospital staff has been holding it together so far to continue caring for their patients, the “current status of care in Manhattan is not sustainable for any length of time.”
Nevertheless, health care workers have been vigilant in working overtime to care for their patients, even in the compromised conditions brought about by Hurricane Sandy. With the fall months fading into winter, their work may not be done quite yet.