Maricopa County Records Highest Number of Heat-Related Deaths Since Beginning Surveillance

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) unveiled its annual heat-associated death report, reporting 339 deaths in 2021, and the county says it is working to bring this number down.

“MCDPH continues to work with community partners to raise awareness of prevention strategies and to educate the community about heat-related illness. Our community partners and cities and towns have come together to establish cooling centers throughout the county,” said MCDPH Public Health Scientist Dr. Ariella Dale to The Arizona Sun Times. “It is also important that we all check in on our families, friends, and neighbors to ensure their A/C is functioning properly and they have access to cool indoor environments to prevent these tragedies from occurring.”

The MCDPH conducts this annual heat surveillance to identify the demographic characteristics and risk factors associated with these deaths so community stakeholders can design ways to intervene and potentially save future lives.

According to the report, the 339 heat-associated deaths in 2021 represent a 70 percent increase over the 199 deaths in 2019; it only barely beats out 2020, which saw 323.

“We have seen increases in heat-associated deaths since 2015 and we know that the causes of heat-associated deaths are multifactorial. In Arizona, we have to think about heat not just in June, July, and August but as early as April and as late as November. With most heat-associated deaths occurring on days that are not under extreme-heat advisories and limited access to resources, our community members may be having trouble keeping their core body temperature cool and staying hydrated,” Dr. Dale said. “We also need to remember that everyone is susceptible to heat-related illness and death, so we must all take precautions every day during the heat season.”

There are two classifications for heat-associated deaths, those being heat-caused and heat-related. As the names suggest, the environment plays a direct role in heat-caused deaths while it only contributes to those classified as heat-related. For example, 60 percent of the recorded deaths occurred in situations involving the abuse of substances such as drugs or alcohol. In most of these cases, the actual cause of death was the drugs, but the heat played a role, meaning the death qualified for the report. In 2021, caused and related deaths were split relatively evenly, at 194 and 145, respectively.

As for the demographics, men are much more likely to die from heat, accounting for 81 percent of deaths, with males in the county dying at a rate of over three times more than females. Moreover, 66 percent occurred in residents who had lived in Maricopa County for over 20 years, and a majority deaths occurred in those over the age of 75. African American and Native American county residents had the highest rate of fatalities. As for the living situation of the deceased, 38 percent were homeless at the time of death, most of them in an urban area.

A total of six National Weather Service alerts were issued for excessive heat warnings in 2021, with the highest recorded temperature reaching 118 degrees on June 17, resulting in nine deaths in one day.

While drinking water and using sunscreen is a start for protection from the environment, heat-related illnesses can still strike. These illnesses, like heat stroke and exhaustion, are often accompanied by headaches, dizziness, and nausea.

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Neil Jones is a reporter for The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Neil on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].




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