Heat wave deaths in Fraser Health nearly double compared to B.C. average

Hundreds of British Columbians died after a stifling heat wave gripped the province in record-breaking temperatures and new data shows that twice as many residents in Fraser Health died compared to the provincial average. 

Newly-released statistics from the BC Coroners Service shows that while there were nearly 300 per cent more people who died in the province compared to the five-year average from June 25 to July 1 – in Fraser Health that number skyrocketed to nearly 600 per cent.

When averaged out, 198 people typically died during the last week of June in British Columbia, but during the punishing heat dome, that number rose to 777, representing 579 excess deaths in the province. In Fraser Health, the average is 50 people who die during that week, but this year there were 344; a 582 per cent increase.

In Vancouver Coastal Health, which has a smaller population (1.25 million) than Fraser Health (1.8 million), an average of 45 people die in the last week of June, but this year 193 did; a 329 per cent increase. This year Interior Health, Northern Health and the Vancouver Island Health authorities saw increases of 123 to 138 per cent of their five-year averages during that time.

THE CITY OF SURREY RESPONSE

The city of Surrey’s emergency coordinator says while the forecast didn’t catch policymakers off guard, the ramifications were a shock.

“I believe we didn't have any experience with that high heat in the Lower Mainland,” said Surrey fire chief, Larry Thomas. “I don't think anyone was surprised because we all took what we believed to be proactive measures to inform people and make everyone aware -- it's just really unfortunate what the results were and I think it'd be appropriate to give my condolences to everyone who lost loved ones in that heat wave. It was pretty devastating for all first responders."

Thomas explained that like other municipalities, Surrey took to its social media channels to let people know that community centres and libraries would be open and to emphasize the importance of drinking a lot of water.

"There was lots of good media attention through forecasts and stories, cities used all their electronic channels but I think unfortunately the people that were succumbing to the heat probably weren't watching their computers or smart phones,” he said. “People that stayed in their home, maybe with their windows open, in those high temperatures above 40 (degrees) were dehydrating and they might not've even known it."

Fraser Health insisted it took extra measures in the face of the record-breaking temperatures.

“During the extreme heat wave, we connected with our service providers and conducted safety checks with people receiving our services to help ensure they were taking precautions to protect themselves from the heat,” wrote a spokesperson. “These individuals included our mental health and substance use clients, home health and home support clients and people living in long-term care and assisted living facilities.”

Both Thomas and Fraser Health emphasized the shared responsibility of checking on seniors and other vulnerable citizens at such a time.

DEVASTATING STORIES EMERGING

A University of British Columbia nursing professor and gerontologist is speaking up to point out that some families are dealing with complex health outcomes and grief as a result of the heat dome.

"In one family, the caregiver actually had a massive heart attack during the heat dome and passed away, they had to wait almost an hour for the ambulance to come and the person with dementia is now in hospital and will be moving into a care home after recovering from some dehydration," said Jennifer Baumbusch. “(The heat) is very hard on older bodies.”

Baumbusch and her team have been in close touch with families as part of a study into caregivers and seniors living with dementia.

"It's shocking to know the numbers and how unprepared we were as a system to be able to provide supports," said Baumbusch. “Our hearts go out to the family we’ve been working with.” 

VANCOUVER ALREADY CONDUCTING A REVIEW AMID RECOMMENDATIONS

While Vancouver saw comparatively fewer deaths than its suburbs and Fraser Valley, the city is already conducting a review of its existing heat response measures as the city’s planning commissioners have sent a memo to the city council and the managers of the city, park board and various civic departments in an effort to mitigate future deaths due to extreme temperatures.

The nine-page document dated July 5 has a series of short-term and longer-term suggestions that “should prioritize historically under-served areas and populations that have been harmed by systemic oppression and inequitable policies and wealth inequality.”

Among the priorities the Vancouver City Planning Commission advocates for in “Climate Emergency: Extreme Heat and Air Quality Mitigation” are emergency alerts to phones in a variety of languages and more widespread communication of the risks and emergency response measures on various media channels and even signage at bus stops and grocery stores.

“The measures that were put in place to cool people down weren't enough, especially people at home who couldn't leave," said commission chair, Robyn Chan. “Who knows when the next heat wave will come, when the next wildfire smoke will come? These are things that can be done now.”

The commission’s short-term suggestions include opening beaches, pools and public washrooms 24 hours per day during heat waves, using buses as cooling stations, planting trees to offer shade and providing more covered and shaded outdoor seating, more temporary washrooms, charging stations and Wi-Fi access near shade or cooling stations, air conditioning in lobbies of social housing and congregate care settings, temporary hotel rooms for the homeless (particularly seniors or living with a disability), transportation to cooling centres, as well as air purifiers with priority for the disabled and elderly.

Suggestions for multi-height water fountains, cooling and misting stations were already incorporated into the city of Vancouver’s response to the heat wave, and the city is continuing to direct people to air conditioned libraries and community centres even though the temperatures have largely returned to normal. 

Long-term recommendations include ensuring accessible seating and access to shady areas in parks, widening sidewalks, investing in pop-up cooling and clean-air tents, more water fountains and water parks, more accessible public washrooms, and air conditioning for social and congregate housing units.

Gabrielle Peters, a commissioner and disability advocate, said while the air quality and temperatures have now improved, the intensity and duration of the heat wave were such that she’s still recovering from the headache, vomiting and brain fog.

“The air purifiers I have were not sufficient but likely saved my life,” she told CTV News. “It was a huge hit on my body with my condition and I'm still recovering to whatever my new baseline will be.”

A city of Vancouver spokesperson says the document will be considered as part of a review its initiated into the heat event.

“The first phase of this review will take place within the next two weeks, based on preliminary data available now,” they said in an email. “We will also be analysing more detailed data from BC Coroners as this is made available over the coming months, to more meaningfully assess who is most impacted and what supports are needed for future extreme heat events.”