'Oven-like conditions': Scorching heat and coronavirus endanger people without AC this summer

Key Points
  • Climate change is driving hotter-than-normal temperatures this summer across the U.S., putting Americans already vulnerable to coronavirus at heightened risk of heat-related illness and death. 
  • A disproportionate number of people who don't have air conditioning in their homes are low-income and minority groups. 
  • Many public cooling centers are shuttered because of the pandemic, and those that are open could be hot beds for disease spread. 
Fire Department of New York medical staff attend to an elderly person experiencing difficulty breathing outside of an apartment building on April 20, 2020, in New York City.
David Dee Delgado | Getty Images

The U.S. is heading into a scorching hot summer following the hottest May on record, putting Americans already vulnerable to coronavirus at heightened risk of heat-related illness and death. 

Climate change is making heat waves more frequent and intense across the world. Higher-than-normal temperatures are likely to hit the mid-Atlantic states and much of the West and Southwest over the following months, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

People who are most at risk of heat-related illnesses and coronavirus have underlying health conditions and are older than age 65. And while roughly 90% of U.S. households have air conditioning, according to federal census figures, a disproportionate number of people who are low income or minorities don't have it in their homes.

"Those most vulnerable will have the least access to cool places that are away from larger groups of people," said Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, who studies heat mapping across the country. 

During the pandemic, many public cooling centers are closed, and those that are open must cut their capacity under public health guidelines. 

People who don't have AC could be forced to go to cooling centers, which are also hot beds for coronavirus spread as research shows that air-conditioned ventilation can circulate and spread the virus between people. 

"If you have limited resources, significant underlying health issues and live in a particularly warm spot in the city's landscape or work in an outdoor job, that can prove to be a recipe for heat illness or even fatality," said Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia who is helping the city of Richmond to deal with hot temperatures. 

An estimated 12,000 Americans die of heat-related causes each year, most of whom are older than 60, according to researchers at Duke University. 

When the "wet-bulb temperature" — a measurement for how heat and humidity affect how the air feels and impacts the body — goes above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), the body can't cool itself and begins to overheat.

"I'm most worried about people living without AC in one-story, highly porous buildings. I also worry about those also living in high-density apartments," Shandas said.

"In both cases, the quality of buildings will often amplify temperatures, creating oven-like conditions that far exceed the body's ability to thermoregulate."   

Crowds gather at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, Monday, May 25, 2020. The warm Memorial Day weather brought out large crowds to popular parks and beaches despite the shelter-in-place order amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jessica Christian | San Francisco Chronicle | Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidelines suggesting cities and states assist with paying utility bills, provide fever checks for those at cooling centers and require utility companies to not shut off power during extreme heat conditions.

While some cities have implemented some of those strategies, many haven't. And efforts haven't gone far enough because the problem is so pervasive, experts say. 

"Cities have had several months to provide increased access to safe public spaces to maintain adequate social distance during the hottest months, but many have yet to do anything concrete," Hoffman said. 

New York City, which has closed public pools for the summer because of health concerns, says it's in the process of providing 74,000 free air conditioners for low-income senior citizens and will double the number of subsidies provided to help people pay their utilities. Phoenix is providing air conditioned hotel rooms for homeless people during excessive heat warnings.

Other strategies include opening up streets to people in some of the most heat-burdened communities.

New York City plans to designate some of these streets as "cool streets," which will open up blocks with shade from trees. The city of Oakland, California, has decided to close almost 10% of its streets. 

Richmond, Virginia, has also turned some streets into social spaces for people to use in the evenings, when temperatures are cooler outside compared with homes without air conditioning. 

Hoffman said that cities must do more to explore why such areas remain so vulnerable to hotter temperatures and implement programs to protect those communities. 

"If these spaces are shaded, accessible by walking and biking and not just crowded with cars, and have community support for resources like learning libraries, mutual aid and potable water, these 'open streets' programs could develop into heat resilience hubs that then sprout other community projects in the future," Hoffman said.

Smokey Bear wears a protective face mask as he warns of high fire danger at the entrance to Griffith Park in Los Angeles Tuesday, May 26, 2020.
Al Seib | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist on the steering committee of the Global Heat Health Information Network, said people should take personal safety measures, including staying hydrated, finding cooler spaces that allow air movement and wetting their skin to increase evaporation during hot spells. 

Normally, cities and states can help vulnerable people who can't access air conditioning at home by keeping community areas like libraries, parks and shopping centers open, especially during the late afternoon and evening.

However, during a pandemic, that option isn't ideal. 

"We observe the highest levels of 'excess mortality and morbidity' during the evening or night time hours, when people are often in their hot homes," Shandas said.

"Until we have urban development policies that take into account the myriad of interventions that cool outdoor areas, we'll continue to face extreme challenges with heat."

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