After record-breaking high temperatures in Oregon, health officials are blaming at least 63 deaths on the heat wave.
Of that total, 45 people in Multnomah County lost their lives due to extremely high temperatures over the weekend, the county’s medical examiner said Wednesday. Many of those who died were found alone, without air conditioning or a fan. Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines while she knew the triple-digit highs were deadly, nothing could prepare her to hear the preliminary death county.
“I will admit I had just a deep sense of dread heading into last weekend’s heat event,” Vines said. “Multnomah County mobilized several days ahead of time in response to the forecast, and it was still really sobering to see the initial count at 45. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I knew that extreme heat like this can kill.“
For comparison, there were only 12 deaths from hyperthermia for all of Oregon between 2017 and 2019.
The number of heat-related deaths could rise as investigations continue. State officials say nine people died from the heat in Marion County, five in Washington County. The other deaths were in Clackamas, Umatilla and Columbia counties. The Clark County, Washington, medical examiner estimates that five to 10 people died there because of the heat.
In Multnomah County, where the most detailed information was available Wednesday afternoon, the preliminary cause of death was hyperthermia, an abnormally high body temperature caused by a failure of the body to adjust to extreme heat.
“What happens is your body will try to keep you cool, and that’s actually work for your heart and your blood vessels. But our heart and blood vessels do the bulk of the work trying to move blood around to dissipate heat and to get fluid to our skin so we can sweat and cool down from evaporation. When those systems get overwhelmed, the body’s temperature will rise just like with a fever and it will eventually get so high, um, that literally cells stop working and, and you die.
The people who died ranged in age from 44 to 97 and include 17 women and 27 men.
“The pattern is older adults with underlying medical conditions living alone, and that is what we know to be the profile for who is at risk of death from an extreme heat event,” Vines said.
Beyond that, county medical examiners haven’t had a chance to finalize causes of death and establish other demographic patterns. Vines says that the county will be even better equipped to deal with another heat emergency, something she believes is likely.
“I think the really sobering lesson is that extreme heat kills,” Vines said. “We have warming summers here in the pacific northwest, so I think I think will be in a situation like this again,”
The deaths occurred as county officials recorded the highest-ever number of 911 calls for medical emergencies and a dramatic spike in heat-related emergency department and urgent care visits.
Between Friday, June 25, when the National Weather Service excessive heat warning went into effect, and Monday, June 28, there were 131 emergency department and urgent care clinic visits for heat illness in Multnomah County. Normally, Oregon’s most populous county would see one visit.
In fact, over the weekend, Multnomah County had more emergency department and urgent care visits than it would usually see in an entire summer. And that number is likely an undercount because emergency departments have been on “divert” status for some periods during the heatwave.
The crisis peaked Monday, with 491 calls (an all-time high) for 911 medical in Multnomah County, a 63% increase over normal. On Monday, Portland broke an all-time high temperature record with 116 degrees recorded at the airport. The county health department is diving into the data, but anecdotally, hospitals were reporting two to five times the number of cardiac arrests and a steady drumbeat of arriving ambulances.
As the heat settled in on Friday, Multnomah County opened three cooling shelters. They reported a total of 1,040 overnight guests and served hundreds more during the daytime, as people came in for water, meals and respite.
The cooling centers closed at 9 a.m. Wednesday after temperatures in Northwest Oregon returned to more normal seasonal levels. Guests had breakfast, and those who needed were given bus tickets. Behavioral health teams were on-site helping with the transition.
Throughout the heat wave, the county had nearly 60 teams of outreach workers and community volunteers covering every corner of the county delivering water, electrolyte packages, cooling towels and refillable water bottles to people experiencing homelessness.
On one occasion, 18,000 bottles went out in just four hours. More than 60,000 bottles total have been shared since the heat emergency started. Outreach workers also helped check on and connect with people who might have been in distress, helping them access cooling centers or emergency services as needed.
“I would like to think that made a difference, but it’s hard to feel that way looking at this number of preliminary deaths,” Vines said. “In this case there was very strong county response. I was one of 800 people or a quarter of county government responding, but it takes everybody checking on others to make sure that they have a place to stay cool”
Multnomah County teams also telephoned dozens of apartment building managers and hundreds of adult care home operators urging them to pay extra attention to residents and to move people to air-conditioned spaces. County staff also delivered hundreds of fans to vulnerable people.
Many people came into cooling centers worried about their pets. Calls for animals in crisis to the county’s animal services department were up 300 percent. Animal services officials warned pet owners to test asphalt and concrete with their own hands before allowing pets outside. Animal services fielded 143 calls between Friday and Tuesday, 47 of them were heat-related. A normal summer weekend would have five heat-related calls. In addition, two adult dogs died.
Between Friday and Monday, 7,610 people also found relief at nine Multnomah County libraries, which opened or extended hours as cooling spaces.
About 800 Multnomah County employees, or nearly a quarter of the county’s workforce, were involved in the response. In addition, the American Red Cross sent a team of 10 volunteers from across the country to assist. On Wednesday they began demobilizing the crisis response.
And while temperatures have dropped in the greater Portland area and along the Northwest coast, in much of the state high temperatures persisted into Wednesday and were expected to continue into the weekend.
This is a developing story. Watch for updates.