In much of the United States, temperatures have been over 90 degrees for at least five days in a row at this point — and as the heat wave continues, the number of Americans needing medical attention increases.
“In general people show up in the ER four to five days after a heat wave starts,” Dr. David Lambert, the medical director of the Emergency Department Observation Unit at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, told NBC News. That’s why, although Philadelphia-area hospitals have already begun to treat overheated and dehydrated patients, they’re expecting a spike over the next several days.
In one hospital in the Bronx, more than half of the paramedic calls have been heat-related this week. Urban areas — particularly places with high concentrations of low-income people living in close quarters, often in brick apartment buildings with no air conditioning — are especially susceptible to heat illnesses. And, thanks to the ongoing effects of climate change, that issue is only expected to get worse. One recent report projected that the death toll from extreme temperatures will skyrocket in New York City over the next 70 years.
At the beginning of last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new data confirming that killer heat waves are an even more serious public health threat than the agency initially realized. Heat deaths tend to disproportionately affect non-residents, like immigrants and migrant workers, who didn’t used to be included in the CDC’s data on the subject. Now, federal health officials are trying to raise the alarm about extreme heat — which is often an “insidious killer,” since many people don’t recognize the symptoms that accompany heat stroke.
The elderly, the homeless, and people who must work outside are particularly at risk for heat-related illnesses and deaths. But Lambert noted he’s seen plenty of younger and middle-aged people in the ER for heat exhaustion this week, too, since people often don’t realize just how much fluid they need to take in during a heat wave to stay properly hydrated.