Heat-related deaths in Arizona’s largest county exceed last year

PHOENIX (AP) — This summer has been the deadliest on record for heat-related deaths in Arizona’s largest county amid a growing wave of homelessness. Public health statistics this week confirmed a record 359 such deaths just days before the end of the six-month heat season.

The rising death toll raises questions about how to better protect vulnerable people not only in the desert southwest, where temperatures regularly hit triple digits, but also in more temperate areas where climate change has fueled more intense, frequent and long-lasting heat waves.

According to the National Weather Service, the highest temperature recorded this year at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was 115 degrees (46.1 C) on July 11, with the mercury reaching 114 degrees (45.5 C) on July 11. June and July 16 and 22.

Heat-related deaths in Maricopa County this year exceeded 339 confirmed deaths in 2021 and the final number could be even higher, with another 91 deaths still under investigation.

The county has more than a decade of experience tracking heat-related deaths, but comparable numbers are hard to find in other regions such as the Pacific Northwest, which has only seen intense heat waves in recent years.

In California, researchers found that unhoused people — especially those with mental illness — were much more likely to end up in hospital during extreme heat than housed people, based on a study of emergency room admissions.

Nearly 80% of heat-related deaths in Maricopa County this year have occurred outdoors, but preliminary heat reports for this year do not estimate the number of homeless deaths rather than among people who worked away or were away for other reasons.

But the increase comes amid a surge in the number of people living outdoors in metro Phoenix, with hundreds of homeless people sleeping in tents downtown amid soaring rents and evictions.

“With so many homeless, it makes sense that more people are dying in the heat,” said Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the downtown Phoenix Human Services Campus, which brings together homeless-serving agencies. .

She said around 900 people are currently staying in shelters on campus, with around 1,000 more in tents on the streets outside the fenced property. A year ago, about 300 people were sleeping just outside campus.

Information on the role that substance use played in this year’s heat-related deaths is not yet available.

But last year, substance use was a factor in 60% of those deaths in Maricopa County. Methamphetamine was found in 91% of drug-related deaths and fentanyl, an opioid, in 30%. While fentanyl is more likely to result in an overdose, methamphetamine can create changes in the body that make a user more vulnerable to heat, increasing blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.

Homeless people accounted for 38% of drug-related deaths in 2021.

Men, African Americans, Native Americans and people ages 75 and older had the highest rates of heat-related deaths in the county in 2021.

David Hondula, one-year-old director of the City of Phoenix’s Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, said in a report to city council last week that his team is studying the numbers to understand what’s behind the increase in deaths and how to plan for next summer.

Hondula said heat-related calls for help to the Phoenix Fire Department over the summer are expected to end at least 10 to 20 percent above 2021.

The city’s fire department responded to 1,670 heat-related calls for service between April 1 and September 30, an increase of 13.6% over the same period in 2021. The density of highest calls came from central and downtown Phoenix urban areas.

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AP writer Christopher Weber contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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