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Last week's heat wave saw a spike in emergency room visits

A sign that reads "Cooling Center Open!" and another that shows the same words in different languages sit near a path leading to an arena.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Signs sit outside a cooling center at Leddy Arena in Burlington during a heat advisory on Thursday, June 20, 2024.

Last week’s heat wave saw the most heat-related emergency room visits of any Vermont heat wave in the past six years.

There were about 40 heat-related emergency department visits, representing 0.5% of all visits last week, according to data collected by the state health department. It was the second-highest number of heat-related visits in the past eight years, losing out to the 2018 heat wave, which was twice as long.

At Patrick Leahy Burlington International Airport, the highest temperature recorded last week was 99 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat index, a measure which includes humidity to determine the impact of heat on the human body, peaked at 105 F. And since a person’s ability to withstand high temperatures is relative to what they’re acclimated to, it doesn’t even have to be all that hot for some Vermonters to experience problems.

“We start to see health impacts from heat in Vermont with heat index values as low as the 80s, before we might think that it’s super hot outside,” said Lauren Prinzing, an environmental health epidemiologist at the state health department. “If it’s been relatively cool, and then we get a stretch of hot weather, then our bodies aren’t acclimated. That’s where this sensitivity to even those temperatures in the 80s comes in.”

An analysis by the department found a variety of factors that increase the danger of a heat wave. The number of emergency department visits increases as the heat index does, as well as the index of the previous day: emergency department visits are four times as high when the day before had a heat index over 95 F versus a day when the index is 80 F or lower. Other factors include the duration of the heat wave, and whether or not temperatures cool at night, thus allowing homes to cool between hot periods.

Last week’s heat wave met several of those conditions. The preceding week was far cooler. Temperatures did not drop during the night between June 18 and 19 — the two hottest days. On the other hand, the wave only lasted three days, compared to the six days of dangerous temperatures the state saw in 2018.

Over the course of that heat wave, which ran from June 30 to July 5, just over 100 people visited an emergency department statewide for heat-related illness.

“We did see an increased number of heat-related illnesses [last week], specifically heat exhaustion and heat stroke,” said Ryan Sexton, chief medical officer of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital. “We also saw some exacerbations of other chronic illnesses, specifically asthma, that were likely related to the heat.”

Other hospitals did not see an increase in the recent heat wave. Alison Davis, medical director of the emergency department at Rutland Regional Medical Center, said in a statement her hospital did not see an uptick in emergency department volume, attributing the success to the local community following warnings and resources provided by the city to help keep people healthy.

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Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.
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