An oppressive heat wave is intersecting with a COVID-19 spike in some of the pandemic's hardest-hit U.S. cities, posing another obstacle for officials and health experts who must decide what's riskier: indoor transmission or dangerous temperatures.
In Houston, the heat index Friday was nearing 110 F, prompting Harris County testing sites to close early. Central Arizona was under an "excessive heat warning," with the high in Phoenix expected to reach 111 degrees. The swelter comes as the World Health Organization acknowledges that virus transmission may be much more likely indoors, particularly in tight spaces, than outside.
But in the Sun Belt, the outside is dicey even in nonpandemic summers.
"This will be next-level sort of heat, even for us," Matt Lanza, a forecast meteorologist for Space City Weather in Houston, wrote on the company's website Friday, encouraging people to check on elderly neighbors and limit time outside.
Dangerous heat, one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths each year, leaves many residents of virus hot spots with a tough decision this weekend. Do they brave scorching temperatures to socialize outside or seek relief in the sweet hum of the air conditioner?
"It's just really freaking hot," said Anna Russell Thornton, a 26-year-old teacher in Houston. Before temperatures rose, Thornton said, she met friends in a church parking lot so they could talk while keeping their distance. That seems insufferable now.
"To be honest, I probably won't hang out with people unless we can be socially distant indoors with just one other person," she said.
Harris County, which currently classifies its COVID risk level as "Level 1: Stay Home," urged residents to stay in the air conditioning -- naming libraries, shopping malls and community centers as potential places of refuge. "Remember to wear your face covering and social distance from others when cooling off," the county's office of emergency management said on Twitter.
Across the U.S., as many as 122 daily heat records are forecast to be tied or broken in the coming week, according to Lara Pagano, a forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. At least 54 million people are expected to experience temperatures of 100 degrees or more.
Meanwhile, Sun Belt states continue to break another record: daily COVID-19 deaths. Florida, Texas and California all set new marks Thursday as the surge in cases from a few weeks ago begins to show up in fatality counts. On Friday, more than 10,000 Texans were hospitalized with the disease, the first time the state has reached that benchmark.