As the mercury rises and heat waves scorch the nation, the toll on human health is only set to increase. Schools in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes regions were forced to close or release students early due to the oppressive heat in early June. Puerto Rico witnessed record-breaking temperatures, with some areas experiencing a heat index of a blistering 51 degrees Celsius (125 degrees Fahrenheit). And these are not isolated events.
The consequences of extreme heat are dire, giving rise to life-threatening storms, power outages, and a surge in hospitalizations.
A recent shocking report from the Center for American Progress estimates extreme heat will exact a toll of $1 billion on healthcare costs this summer alone in the United States. Vulnerable communities lacking access to cooling resources and green spaces bear the brunt of this burden.
The high cost of heat
This estimate, first seen on Grist, projects a staggering number of emergency department visits and hospital admissions linked to heat-related illnesses. More than 235,000 visits to emergency departments and over 56,000 hospital admissions are anticipated nationwide for the summer of 2023.
"As the number of heat-event days increases, the probability of emergency room visits and hospitalizations rises," Steven Woolf, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Grist.
Extreme heat refers to abnormally high temperatures, often defined as temperatures above the 85th, 90th, or 95th percentile for a specific location.
Heat events refer to periods of one or more days with extreme heat. These events are characterized by specific combinations of temperature, humidity, cloud cover, windspeed, and other climatic conditions.
Heat waves are a series of consecutive days with abnormally high temperatures, typically exceeding the 85th percentile of historical temperatures for that region.
To better understand the impact of extreme heat, researchers delved into health insurance claims and analyzed data from Virginia, offering crucial insight into the consequences of rising temperatures.
The researchers drew on health insurance claims filed during the 80 extreme heat days that occurred annually in Virginia between 2016 and 2020. They found hospitalizations due to heat-related illnesses and conditions such as cardiovascular, kidney, and respiratory diseases were alarmingly high.
These heat events resulted in nearly 400 additional outpatient visits for heat-related illness, almost 7,000 additional emergency department visits (including over 4,600 for heat-related or heat-adjacent illnesses), and close to 2,000 additional heat-related hospital admissions. These trends are likely to be reflective of the situation across the United States.
Extrapolating from the Virginia data, the report estimates that extreme heat will annually inflate healthcare costs by $1 billion across the United States.
These staggering costs, indicative of the challenges posed by rising temperatures, will disproportionately affect low-income and historically marginalized communities. Access to cooling resources, like air conditioning and green spaces, remains sporadic in these areas, amplifying the health risks faced by residents.
Recognizing the urgent need for action, communities must embrace measures to adapt to the effects of extreme heat. Many cities have already begun implementing strategies to safeguard their residents. These initiatives include using heat-reflecting building materials, passing laws to subsidize power bills for low-income households, and increasing tree cover—an affordable yet highly effective intervention that significantly reduces street-level temperatures. But will these be enough?
A call for action
The growing threat of extreme heat necessitates action at all levels of society. Governments and the private sector must confront the fundamental crisis of climate change. It is crucial to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shifting towards clean renewable energy sources, mitigating the effects of rising temperatures.
With this in mind, the report puts forward a series of policy recommendations to systematically address the challenges posed by extreme heat:
- Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Governments and the private sector must take decisive action to slow down climate change. Shifting away from fossil fuel use and embracing clean renewable energy sources is essential.
- Strengthen Protections: Federal, state, and local governments should establish and reinforce their responsibilities in protecting communities from extreme heat. A coordinated, cross-sector approach is necessary to tackle both extreme heat and climate change.
- Improve Data and Prediction Capabilities: Enhancing data surveillance and prediction capabilities is vital. Jurisdictions need detailed and timely data, as well as improved modeling methods, to adequately track and predict heat events and their impact on public health.
- Raise Public Awareness: The public needs clear, timely information about the risks of extreme heat and measures to protect themselves. Efforts should focus on informing the public about the dangers of extreme heat and providing guidance on preventive measures.
- Increase Community Resilience: Communities must take steps to limit public exposure to extreme heat. Increasing tree canopy and implementing comprehensive action plans to address heat emergencies in real time is crucial.
- Strengthen Healthcare Services: It is essential to strengthen healthcare services and early detection of heat-related illnesses. Providing information on warning signs and ensuring access to care is vital. Healthcare systems should train providers on treatment guidelines and enhance infrastructure to maintain services during heat waves and power outages.