Heat-related deaths at 22 in Maryland

13 were city residents

statewide figure is 7 more than last year's total

Rise in emergency room visits

Elderly with underlying health problems, children are especially vulnerable

July 10, 2002|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

With two months remaining before Maryland typically begins cooling off, state health officials are reporting 22 heat-related fatalities so far this season.

That's seven more than the total number of deaths last summer that were blamed on the heat.

Officials fear the number could climb.

"We hope that we've reached the peak, but this is only July 9," J.B. Hanson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said yesterday. "The extreme heats in Baltimore traditionally don't cool off until around the second week in September. It's possible that there could be some additional deaths."

During June and this month, temperatures have soared above 90 degrees 14 times, including seven of the first nine days of this month, according to the National Weather Service's Web site. By comparison, the temperature exceeded 90 eight times in June and July last year.

Of the 22 deaths statewide, 13 occurred in Baltimore, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, city health commissioner. He said the Baltimoreans shared the same profile: they were elderly, suffered from underlying health conditions, including cardiac or respiratory problems and diabetes, and were found in residences that lacked air conditioning.

Of the 12 deaths reported since July 3, eight were city residents, Hanson said. Of those, five were 80 years or older. Two of the remaining four victims lived in Montgomery County, one in Harford County and the fourth in Talbot County. He refused to identify the victims, saying that to do so would violate patient confidentiality.

"Although it's terribly tragic for the individual families involved, virtually every case, at least in Baltimore City, fits the profile," Beilenson said. "We really think it is imperative that people be good neighbors. You need to check on not just your elderly relatives but [also] elderly friends and neighbors."

Young children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to extreme temperatures. Yesterday's high at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was 97 degrees.

The city health commissioner said the heat-related deaths typically don't occur as soon as the temperature spikes.

"If it has been 82 degrees, and all of a sudden it's 95, you don't see deaths on that first day it's 95," Beilenson said. "What you do tend to see, and this has certainly been the case the last couple of weeks, is at the end of four or five days of hot and humid weather, the physical stress has built up enough, particularly among the elderly with heart and lung conditions. That's when they succumb to the heat."

There also has been an increase in the number of people visiting emergency rooms for problems associated with the hot weather.

"We've been seeing an increase in upper respiratory and cardiac-related problems due to the heat," said Dan Collins, senior manager of media relations at Mercy Medical Center. "People who had pre-existing conditions, like emphysema, have had those conditions exacerbated. People are coming in with chest pains due to the stress that's caused by heat."

Most of the Mercy emergency room patients complaining of heat-induced problems have been elderly, Collins said. "But we have had some people coming in suffering from dehydration, and [they] have varied from children to older adults. I'm told we're seeing about five or six patients a day who are having some kind of heat-related issue."

Reggie Scriber, director of the city's ombudsman's office, said four cooling centers were opened at various senior buildings July 3. "We also have fans for those buildings that lack central air," Scriber said. "They have to call us, and we'll try to deliver the fans if we don't run out." Of 125 fans in stock, 73 have been delivered since July 3, he said.

Scriber and housing spokesman Kevin Brown said housing officials will meet today to discuss buildings that can be used as cooling centers.

Today, the state is expected to get a reprieve from the heat wave. Today's projected high in Baltimore is expected to be in the mid- to upper 80s, said Andy Woodcock, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Washington/Baltimore office.

"We're moving into a better period with cooler air. It looks like it's going to be in the 80s for the rest of the week," he said.

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