Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)
By Kristy Dahl and Juan Declet-Barreto
Over the last 30 days, hundreds of daily high temperature records have been broken across the United States, and extreme heat is expected to continue across much of the Southeast and Southern Great Plains regions this week. In a new analysis, detailed below, UCS evaluated the current COVID-19 public health guidance for 26 highly populated counties expected to experience extreme heat this week.
We find that in more than half of them, a rising number of COVID-19 cases and relaxation of social distancing and other COVID-19 containment guidelines could put millions of people—and people of color disproportionately—at risk.
Those who stay at home during this week’s heat wave but lack air conditioning or the means to pay for it amidst record unemployment face the risk of heat stress or other heat-related illnesses that can be brought on by exposure to extreme heat. Yet venturing out into public places in order to cool down could mean exposure to the coronavirus.
With public health guidance and COVID-19 case rates varying widely throughout the country, we identified places where heat and COVID-19 risks could intersect this week and, by extension, may need additional resources in order to cope with the combined risks.
We analyzed the current COVID-19 public health guidance for 26 populous counties forecast to experience extreme heat this week. We also used data from the New York Times to identify whether new COVID-19 cases were increasing or decreasing in those counties and whether Black and Latinx people represented a disproportionate share of the counties’ COVID-19 cases. Finally, we used US Census data to characterize race and ethnicity in each county.
Finding 1: COVID-19 cases are surging in most major population centers forecast to experience extreme heat this week. In 22 of the 26 counties we analyzed, new COVID-19 cases are on the rise. Particularly in states that reopened early, such as Arizona, Florida, and Texas, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed, forcing state and local authorities to pause or rollback reopening plans. Maricopa and Pima counties in Arizona, and Travis, Tarrant, Dallas, and Bexar counties in Texas stand out in our analysis; these counties had relatively low growth of new COVID-19 cases until a few weeks ago, when they led the country in reopening and lifted COVID-19 health protections. Similarly, cases across Florida are currently surging.
Finding 2: Refuges from heat are open, but masks may or may not be required. In all of the counties we analyzed, at least some of the types of places people go to cool down during heat waves are open or recently re-opened. These include outdoor spaces, such as beaches and parks, as well as reliably air-conditioned indoor spaces like malls, movie theaters, and libraries. In some counties, such as Hidalgo County, Texas, these indoor facilities have occupancy restrictions to allow for social distancing. Enforcement likely varies from county to county and even from one establishment to the next.
Notably, four of the counties we analyzed do not require people to wear face masks when in indoor public places where potential virus transmission is highest. And many counties allow people to remove masks when seated in a restaurant or movie theater. Sedgwick County (Wichita), Kansas, for example, only very recently required wearing of masks in public, and Oklahoma County (Oklahoma City), Oklahoma has not mandated mask use either indoors or outdoors but does recommend masks in indoor public space.
Given both the popularity during heat waves of movie theaters, malls, restaurants, amusement parks, etc., and the relatively high risk of virus exposure at such venues, keeping cool this summer requires great care. When considering venturing out of the house it is critical to keep in mind that face masks have been shown to reduce the number of infections in communities where the virus is actively circulating.
Finding 3: Communities of color are particularly at risk. Of the 26 counties included in our analysis, 20 had sufficient data reported by the New York Times or by the counties themselves to evaluate whether non-White populations have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. But in all but one of those with sufficient data, COVID-19 has taken a heavier toll on Black and other populations of color than on White populations. In Johnson County (Kansas City), Kansas, for example, both Black and Hispanic residents have experienced about three times the rate of COVID-19 cases that White residents have experienced. In Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona there are nearly four times as many COVID-19 cases among the Native American population compared with White residents.
Many of the counties threatened by extreme heat in the coming weeks are home to sizeable Black or Latinx populations. Given that both heat and COVID-19 affect these populations more severely, these counties in particular should rapidly mobilize resources to ensure that their most vulnerable residents are safe from both of these threats. Some measures taken so far fall far short of what’s truly needed.
Houston, for example, will provide about 220 air conditioner units to residents in lieu of opening and operating cooling centers. For a city that has historically experienced nearly 120 days per year with a heat index above 90°F and where thousands of residents—including more than 1,000 public housing residents—lack air conditioning, 220 air conditioning units is a drop in the bucket of what is needed.
It’s important to note that elderly people also face disproportionate risks from both heat and COVID-19. They may be reluctant to leave the house to seek cooling in public places or be more isolated that usual at home as people try to maintain social distance from one another.
Public health guidance was gathered between 7/10/20 and 7/14/20 and may change over time. Trends in cases as well as whether cases have disproportionately affected Black or Latinx residents were gathered primarily from the New York Times, with supplementary information from the counties themselves and the US Census Bureau. A full reference list is available upon request.
This summer’s blazing heat is a wearying reminder—at an unwelcome time—that we are living in a world in which global average temperatures are already nearly 2°F warmer than they were before the Industrial Revolution.
Our ability to rise to the complex challenges presented by future extreme heat—or any other climate-related threat—will be defined by how well we equitably equip people with the basic tools that ensure their safety—tools such as access to and the ability to pay for air conditioning; equal access to preventative health care; and a guarantee that we are all doing our best to keep one another healthy.
With a scattershot approach to COVID-19 safety measures across the county and a chronic discounting of the health and lives of Black and Latino people, this week’s extreme heat may demonstrate, once again, the extent to which our country’s White majority has held these basic tools out of the reach of people of color. As we speed toward a future where heat waves like this become the norm, we must do better.
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