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B.C. records nearly 500 deaths and counting during heat wave

The BC Coroners Service has launched an investigation to find out what the province could have done better to prepare for the heat wave.
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It's important to check on your friends and family, especially the elderly and those live alone, during the heat wave.

A devastating heat wave that paralyzed the Pacific Northwest over the last five days has been linked to 486 sudden and unexpected deaths. 

That’s 321 more sudden deaths — a 195 per cent increase — more than would occur over a normal five-day period. 

“This, frankly, took many of us off guard,” said B.C.'s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe Wednesday. “I think it’s very likely many of us misunderstood the extreme risk.” 

Calling the human toll “unprecedented” barely scratches the surface. 

A spokesperson for the BC Coroners Service told Glacier Media only three deaths have been attributed to heat between 2010 and May 2021. 

“We know every year in the world, there are like four million deaths linked to air pollution,” said Michael Brauer, a researcher from UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.

“It’s the same issue here. You can just hear the sirens at night. There are a lot of people dying. This is due to the heat. But we just don’t put that on death certificates.” 

Like its counterparts in fire, ambulance and law enforcement, coroners have been overwhelmed by the uptick in sudden deaths, particularly in the Lower Mainland. By Wednesday, the service had mobilized all its full and part-time coroner staff and sent them to the field to clear a backlog in sudden deaths.

“A lot of deaths have not been entered into the system,” confirmed Lapointe. “We know that our formal count is lower.”

Lapointe said she believes many of the deaths reported in recent days will be tied to heat exposure, but investigations still need to be carried out to confirm the cause of death.

That’s because heat often acts as the trigger for pre-existing conditions in an older adult or someone suffering from chronic disease. 

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing from the coroners that many who died lived alone,” said Lapointe. “Many people have been found in residences that are very, very warm and not ventilated. 

A larger investigation has been launched to determine what the province could have done better to prepare for the devastating heat wave. Those results are expected in the coming months.

PROVINCE ‘WORKING HARD’

At a press conference with reporters Wednesday, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Mike Farnworth defended the government’s handling of the record heat wave.

On Tuesday, the union representing ambulance paramedics denounced BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) after firefighters and patients were left waiting up to 11 hours for assistance. 

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia, said pressure has been building on ambulance crews for months. When the heat wave hit, he said staffing shortages of up to 25 per cent combined with a spike in demand. 

“We know we’re going to face floods, fires,” he said. “We should have been planning for it a long time ago. It’s not unpredictable.”

“I say there needs to be accountability from the leadership at BCEHS.” 

Farnworth shot back at those concerns, saying his government hired 200 ambulance paramedics last fall and plans to hire more in the summer. 

“Our systems across the province are working hard, but getting through a weather event like this safely means each and every person must do their part to ensure their own safety and the safety of their neighbours and loved ones,” he said. 

He pointed to advice his government had given in advance of the heat wave — to wear a hat, drink water, take cold showers and seek out municipal cooling centres.

Farnworth said the province has supported municipalities with funding to keep libraries and civic facilities open as cooling centres, as well as extra money to bring on more firefighters in cities like Vancouver. 

At the legislative level, the minister said his government is in the midst of rewriting B.C.'s Emergency Act. In the past, the act has traditionally focused on wildfire and flooding; soon, said Farnworth, it will set up the province to take action on pandemics and heat waves. 

“This kind of heat wave is not typical of British Columbia. But with the reality of climate change, we can’t ignore the potential for this to become more common in the future,” he said, warning of another potentially devastating wildfire season to come.

“We have to be ready. We can’t ignore the possibility of a next time and it’s clear that we can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past.”