Triple-Digit Heat Poses Major Health Risk, Especially to Sacramento’s Most Vulnerable

At cooling centers like the Hagginwood Community Center, Sacramento residents can get water and snacks and sit in a cool place during the heat wave.

When the doors of the Hagginwood Community Center in North Sacramento opened at 1 p.m. Tuesday, the main room offered a steady blast of cool air to anyone who came in from the 105 degree heat.

Angela Phillips was among the first to claim a spot amid the rows of spaced-out plastic chairs.

“I do definitely appreciate the air conditioning today, and the granola bar,” she said.

She said she lost her job at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then couldn’t pay her rent. Since then she’s been sleeping in her car.

“What other options do I have?,” she said of spending the day at the center. “Better to be cool and safe.”

Triple-digit temperatures present a unique challenge during the pandemic, as many libraries, malls and other spaces where people would normally cool off are closed. With afternoon temperatures climbing as high as 108 degrees this week, the city and county of Sacramento rushed to open cooling centers where residents without access to air conditioning can seek refuge from the heat.

But advocates for Sacramento’s unhoused and low-income residents say these temporary centers are a band-aid for the larger racial and economic inequities that leave some people more susceptible to heat illness than others.

“It’s almost not safe for anybody to be out in this for too long, and yet there are people who don’t have houses,” said Jordan McGowan, an organizer with a community group called Sacramento Neighbor. “The folks that don’t have houses typically are Black and brown, poor, folks … This heat wave is just another example of how the people come second.”

Heat And Health

Extreme heat poses a number of health risks, especially for young children, elderly people and those who live with a chronic condition. Rates of obesity, asthma, diabetes and heart failure are higher among Black and Latino Californians than White Californians, which has been tied to socioeconomic factors.

About 700 people succumb to heat death in America annually, according to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are two main types of heat-related illness:

  • Heat exhaustion can cause muscle cramping, fatigue, headache or nausea and can exacerbate heart and respiratory diseases.
  • Heat stroke occurs when heat exhaustion progresses into a life-threatening condition. During severe cases of heat stroke, body temperatures can rise above 103°F, causing damage to the brain or other organs.

Dr. Janine Bera is chief medical officer for WellSpace Health, which runs community clinics throughout the Sacramento region. She said providing air conditioned spaces during heat waves can save lives, even if it involves the added risk of putting people in close proximity during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The virus is much more easily passed when you are indoors than when you’re outdoors,” she said. But at the same time, she adds, people can die from heat stroke just as they can from COVID-19, “so we have to sort of balance everything,” she said.

At two cooling centers that CapRadio visited Wednesday, staff gave out masks, provided sanitizing liquids and asked people to sit apart from one another. The director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management said in a statement that the centers will comply with county and state guidelines for COVID-19 prevention.

The city opened centers in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood of North Sacramento and the Florin area of South Sacramento — two ZIP codes where the median income falls far below that of the county on the whole.

A recent study out of the University of Southern California found that people living in poorer areas were less likely to have air conditioning than people in wealthier areas. Researchers noted that people may be having a harder time paying utility bills due to job loss or reduced hours during the pandemic.

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