Extended heatwave in Philadelphia amid July 4th crowds adds to health concerns

Hot Weather Philadelphia
Luz Pratts, left, watches her daughters Karina, 11, Amarilys, 9, background, play with Laylana, 3, in an inflatable pool on the front porch as they keep cool in the West Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Monday July 2, 2018. The National Weather Service has issued an excessive heat warning through Tuesday in the Philadelphia area with oppressive temperatures expect to last through the Fourth of July holiday. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

This week’s brutal heat wave — with heat index values up to 105 degrees — comes with potentially serious health consequences and additional fears, as tens of thousands of people are expected to flood the city for tourism and July Fourth festivities culminating in a concert on the Parkway and fireworks.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 100 people had called the Heatline, the city’s special hotline (215-765-9040) for heat events, though no calls appeared to be for life-threatening issues.  The hotline, operated by the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging, was activated at noon Sunday.

Chris Gallagher, the PCA’s heatline director, said nurses can provide triage for callers to determine if they need medical help.  Nurses can then send a mobile team to a residence if necessary, although none had to be dispatched as of yet.

Indeed, whether the heat becomes overwhelming might depend where you live.  Certain areas of the city can be heat-trapping pockets made extra steamy by block after block of black-roofed rowhouses, strip shopping centers, busy roads — but few trees or other sources of shade in between.

In some neighborhoods, temperatures can get much higher than the city average. In fact, there can be as much as a 20-degree difference between a neighborhood sheltered by a cooling canopy of trees and one exposed to nonstop sun.

>>READ MORE: Why are some parts of Philly 20 degrees warmer than others during the summer?

Mark Ross, vice president for emergency preparedness at the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said hospitals have received briefings to prepare for what could become the longest heat wave in six years, with no relief until perhaps the weekend.  He said that so far, there appears to be only a slightly elevated number of trips to emergency departments.

But, he noted, hospitals are prepared for an uptick as holiday events get underway. Wawa Welcome America festivities build up to Wednesday’s free concert and fireworks celebration on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  The heat could reach its peak Tuesday, but temperatures for Wednesday through Friday are still forecast for the low 90s.

Among the people at greatest risk are seniors.Yes, that stereotype about older folks putting on sweaters in a heat wave is often true. But what makes that dangerous is that their bodies don’t let go of heat as they once did, and they may not realize they are overheating. This can prove a deadly combination, making it essential to check in on older family members frequently and get them to air-conditioning if needed.

Conditions like diabetes and asthma can also add to a person’s risk of weather-related trouble, and babies are also especially prone to overheating. No child or pet should be left in a parked car for any time at all, especially in this heat. Call 911 for immediate assistance if you see such a situation.

But in these extreme conditions, people of all ages are at risk. Look out for signs of:

  • Heat stroke, which happens when your body no longer can regulate temperature.  Symptoms are extremely high body temperatures (above 103 degrees), lack of sweating, a rapid/strong pulse, headache, dizziness and nausea.  What to do: Call 911 for help immediately. Try to cool the person down in the meantime with whatever cold water and ice you can find.
  • Heat exhaustion comes on more slowly, after days of high temperatures (we’ve got that for sure) and failing to drink enough fluids. Symptoms include excessive thirst, fatigue, heavy sweating, nausea, headaches, muscle cramping, confusion, slow/weakened heartbeat, and agitation. What to do: Get to a cooler place with circulating air, and start replacing fluids. Water is always best; sports drinks and juices are useful to replace electrolytes. Alcohol is only going to dehydrate you.

Athletes would be well-advised to take their workouts indoors to an air-conditioned gym, especially if you haven’t already acclimated yourself to these conditions.

If you must go outside and run around, keep this in mind: Every time you lose 1 percent of your body weight in sweat (which wouldn’t be hard at these temperatures), your body gets a half-degree hotter. Just a 2 percent to 3 percent loss can mean visible impairment.