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Searing heat will make COVID-19 racial disparities worse

Teresa Wiltz, on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Scientists say the nation is experiencing another public health emergency that will further exacerbate the coronavirus crisis: extreme heat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting the next three months will be hotter than normal for much of the country; 2020, it says, likely will rank as one of the hottest years on record.

Communities of color, particularly lower-income Black and Latino neighborhoods, will be particularly affected. Extreme heat likely will push more residents into crowded cooling centers, where they may be exposed to the virus, and worsen breathing problems and other underlying health conditions that already disproportionately affect people of color, researchers say.

As the summer heats up, cities are offering help with utility bills; repairing existing air conditioning systems or providing free air conditioners for low-income residents; opening more cooling centers; and parking buses with the air conditioning running so that passersby can cool off.

But advocates and many scientists say officials need to develop strategies to protect the health of vulnerable communities for the long term, as climate change leads to more frequent and intense heat waves.

That includes, they say, prioritizing federal and state spending for plans to mitigate extreme heat; strengthening the health care system and expanding telemedicine; improving air quality and reducing fossil fuel consumption. They also recommend expanding green spaces, painting roofs white and creating community outreach programs for vulnerable populations.


As part of the CARES Act, the federal government this spring allocated $900 million in grants from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to states to support home energy assistance for low-income households affected by the coronavirus.

And 26 states and the District of Columbia have issued moratoriums on shut-offs for nonpayment of gas, water and electricity bills, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

But many of the measures used to protect people from extreme heat, such as inviting people to cooling centers or movie theaters and malls, are incompatible with social distancing measures.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that cooling centers screen for COVID-19 symptoms, provide ample hand sanitizer and masks, practice social distancing, limit visitors and ensure HVAC systems have proper air filtration. The CDC also recommends centers sanitize and disinfect spaces regularly and, where possible, use specialized systems known as upper-air ultraviolet germicidal irradiation disinfection systems.


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