In all, 10 people died from heat-related illnesses within the city limits of Laredo between June 15 and July 3, a toll unheard of in this heat-accustomed corner of Texas. Though public health officials in several states said a full and accurate count of how many people have died from the recent bout of heat is weeks away, if not months, Laredo’s experience suggested that the eventual number could be substantial — a harbinger of a future in which heat waves become a regular public health crisis.
Across the country, extreme heat, which can strain the heart, lungs and kidneys, is a leading weather-related cause of death. In Texas last year, 298 people died of heat-related causes, according to the state health department — the highest annual total in more than two decades. Among them were 155 nonresidents, a figure that includes migrants crossing the state’s harsh terrain. During the heat wave in Webb County, at least two migrants were found dead on local ranches, according to the sheriff, Martin Cuellar.
The superheated dome of high atmospheric pressure that has been pressing down on much of the country will probably stay in place for a few more days at least, forecasters said, pushing temperatures to dangerous heights from parts of California all the way to Florida. And the temperature readings tell only part of the story, public health officials cautioned, because humid air worsens the heat, making it much more difficult for the body to cool down. And in cities like Laredo, the air can grow even hotter as the sun bakes the pavement, with little respite at night.
Around the country, public health officials have begun thinking of new ways to track and respond to heat-related illnesses, in order to better protect residents, particularly those whose jobs require them to work outside. In Louisiana, the state began in April to track in real time the number of people in hospital emergency rooms because of the heat — a system akin to one used during the pandemic to stay on top of Covid-19 outbreaks. Similar medical surveillance systems have been rolled out in Virginia, and the California legislature has approved creating onethere.
The purpose is to use the data to better educate the public and to direct help to those suffering in the heat, said Dr. Alicia Van Doren, a preventive medicine physician who is advising Louisiana on its heat-illness prevention program. “We’re still in the early days,” she said, adding that more needed to be done — and quickly.