In all, 10 people died of heat-related illnesses within Laredo’s city limits between June 15 and July 3, a toll unheard of in this heat-accustomed corner of Texas. Although public health officials in several states have said a full and accurate count of how many people have died from the recent heat wave is weeks, if not months, away, Laredo’s experience suggested the eventual toll could be large — a harbinger of a future in which heat waves are becoming 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 non-residents, a figure that includes migrants crossing the harsh terrain of the state. During the heat wave in Webb County, at least two hikers were found dead on local ranches, according to Sheriff Martin Cuellar.
The superheated dome of high atmospheric pressure that has gripped much of the country is likely to remain in place for at least a few more days, forecasters said, pushing temperatures to dangerous heights from parts of California to Florida. And the temperatures tell only part of the story, public health officials warned, because humid air makes the heat worse, making it much harder 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 about new ways to track and respond to heat-related illnesses to better protect residents, especially those whose jobs require them to work outside. In Louisiana, the state in April began tracking in real time the number of people in hospital emergency rooms due to the heat — a system similar to the one used during the pandemic to stay on top of Covid-19 outbreaks. Similar medical surveillance systems have been introduced Virginiaand the California legislature approved to create one there.
The goal is to use the data to better educate the public and direct help to those suffering in the heat, said Dr. Alicia Van Doren, a preventive medicine physician who advises Louisiana on its heat illness prevention program. “We’re still in the early days,” she said, adding that more needs to be done — and quickly.