As Lisa Landis spoke late Tuesday Morning, temperatures in Lancaster County reached above 90 degrees for the fifth day in a row, continuing a potentially health-threatening heat wave.
To Landis, a spokeswoman for the local Red Cross, dealing with high temperatures is routine. Typically, Red Cross officials would work with municipal leaders to set up cooling centers.
“These are staffed locations with cold drinks, air conditioning, snacks and relief from the heat for those without other means of reprieve,” she said.
But 2020 is not a typical year. The COVID-19 pandemic has made public gatherings dangerous sources of contagion, and the same would be true for cooling centers, Landis said.
“Following COVID-19 safety guidance, we are not currently operating any congregate cooling centers,” she said.
That’s true despite the fact that excessive heat has been linked to more deaths than any other weather events, she said.
And David Johnson, a physician with Lancaster General Health’s Kissel Hill Urgent Care, explained exactly why heat is so dangerous.
In addition to quickly leading to conditions like dehydration, excessive heat can increase body temperatures so severely that the brain ceases to function properly, leading to illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, he said.
Heat exhaustion can lead to tiredness, rashes and cramping, Johnson said, explaining healthy people can often remedy those symptoms with plenty of fluids and a cold bath.
More severely, symptoms like hot, red skin; changes in consciousness; vomiting; and high body temperature are signs of potentially life-threatening heat stroke.
People suffering those symptoms should seek out medical attention immediately, even during the pandemic, Johnson said, dismissing rumors that doctors’ offices and hospitals are hot spots for contagion.
“There is a lot that goes into keeping a very safe environment,” he said. “I would say the risk to them is very low.”
The pandemic factor
Still, Johnson was willing to admit that the pandemic, specifically mask wearing, has complicated heat-related concerns. That’s because breathing is one of the main ways the body regulates temperature, he said, adding masks impede that process.
“If you don’t need to wear a mask outdoors, I don’t recommend it,” Johnson said, referring to periods of extreme heat.
State Gov. Tom Wolf has mandated that Pennsylvanians wear masks in public when they cannot maintain a 6-foot distance from others who do not live in the same house.
Among those most susceptible to heat-related illnesses are people above age 65 and those with underlying health conditions — demographics also considered at-risk for life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms.
It’s a fact that Lon Wible said he’s acutely aware of. Wible is the director of Lancaster County’s Office of Aging, which runs eight senior centers throughout the county — senior centers, which typically operate as cooling stations for the elderly during heat waves, he said.
A heat wave is defined as three or more consecutive days with highs of at least 90 degrees.
Because of the pandemic, senior centers have been closed since mid-March and remain closed despite the recent heat, Wible said, revealing that the centers each serve about 20 to 50 seniors a day.
Often, aging experts also will direct elderly people without air conditioning to public places like malls, libraries and other cool retail spaces, he said. Many of those places also have closed due to COVID-19, and even when they’ve reopened, they serve as locations where the virus could potentially spread.
“That is the challenge,” he said. “You really need to remain in your house in a safe environment.”