The heatwave that swept through portions of the Pacfiic Northwest in Canada and the US has already led to a stark increase in suspected hyperthermia deaths.
In Oregon, the state reported 63 deaths linked to the heatwave, as of Wednesday. This marked a big spike, with Oregon reporting just 12 deaths from hyperthermia between 2017 to 2019, according to a statement released by the medical examiner.
The Multnomah County medical examiner’s office – a county that includes Portland – has reported 45 deaths since Friday where hyperthermia was the preliminary cause.
Hyperthermia is an abnormally high body temperature caused by the failure of the body to manage its heat. The victims in Oregon were in the age range of 44 to 97.
“This was a true health crisis that has underscored how deadly an extreme heat wave can be, especially to otherwise vulnerable people,’’ said Dr Jennifer Vines, the Multnomah County’s health officer, in a statement.
Additionally, Washington officials linked at least 20 deaths to the extreme heat, but that number was expected to rise as the high temperatures persisted in portions of the state through the weekend.
Of those deaths, three of them were men – ages 55, 71, and 75, who died in Snohomish County from heat stroke, the county’s medical examiners office told local news outlets.
Hospital admissions also surged in both Oregon and Washington in recent days, with patients experiencing heat-related illnesses.
The Oregon Health Authority reported hundreds of visits from residents seeking medical help due to the heat. Washington hospitals also saw hundreds of patients seeking help from heat-related illnesses.
Officials warned residents that these high temperatures would likely persist throughout the summer, which could lead to a rise in the hyperthermia death toll.
“I know many county residents were looking out for each other and am deeply saddened by this initial death toll. As our summers continue to get warmer, I suspect we will face this kind of event again,” Dr Vines said.
Residents living in Washington and Oregon were less likely to own central air conditioning and air conditioning window units compared to other parts of the United States, which officials said likely contributed to some of the heat-related deaths.
In Seattle, for example, about 44 per cent of residents have access to air conditioning in their home, according to a 2019 US Census Bureau report. Nationally, that number is around 90 per cent.
The lack of air conditioning was due to the states previously experiencing mild summers compared to other locations, but scientists have warned these higher-than-normal temperatures would likely persist due to the climate crisis.
“Natural variation alone cannot explain the increase in hot weather ... The increase in hot weather is a direct result of climate change, and human influence is estimated to have more than doubled the likelihood of the warming trends experienced recently in virtually every region of the globe,” said science non-profit Climate Communication in a statement.
Portions of Canada have also experienced extreme heat, which led to an increase of the death toll over the weekend.
At least 486 sudden deaths were reported in the last five days in British Columbia, which was about a 66 per cent increase from the 165 deaths the Canadian province typically experiences over the same timeframe.
“While it is too early to say with certainty how many of these deaths are heat related, it is believed likely that the significant increase in deaths reported is attributable to the extreme weather,” said Lisa Lapointe, British Columbia’s chief coroner.
Similar to Washington and Oregon, residents in areas like Vancouver were unlikely to own air conditioning units, thus impacting their ability to cool off amid the extreme heat.
“Vancouver has never experienced heat like this, and sadly dozens of people are dying because of it,” Vancouver Police Sergeant Steve Addison said in a statement.
Temperatures have cooled down across the Pacific Northwest, as of Wednesday. But portions of the US and Canada were still experiencing extreme heat, and meteorologists have warned that above-average temperatures were anticipated through July.