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Four-fold increase in sudden deaths reported during B.C. heat wave: preliminary data

Northern Health saw a negligible increase in sudden deaths
Ambulance
Emergency departments saw a huge increase of activity during the heat wave.

Last week’s record-breaking heat wave is suspected to have led to 579 more sudden deaths across British Columbia when compared to the five-year average over the same period, according to new preliminary data from the BC Coroners Service.

That represents a nearly four-fold increase in sudden deaths compared to previous years. 

Last week, large swathes of B.C. were blanketed in a heat dome, pushing ambulance wait times up to 11 hours and priming forests and grasslands for wildfires

Between June 25 and July 1, a total of 777 sudden deaths were reported in the province. Over the same period, sudden deaths in past years ranged from 179 in 2016 to 232 in 2020.

None of the deaths have been confirmed as heat-related and investigators are still working to establish how and why so many more people died over last week than in previous years, noted the BC Coroners Service.

Death by heat is notoriously hard to track as rising temperatures can trigger chronic illnesses; or, they get recorded as heart or kidney failure.

However, last week, B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said she suspects at least a portion of the spike in deaths to be heat related; many of those who past away last week were found alone in poorly ventilated apartments.

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

LOWER MAINLAND HIT HARDEST

The Fraser Health region, which stretches from Boston Bar to Burnaby, saw one of the biggest spikes in sudden deaths: 344 sudden deaths were reported last week, nearly seven-times the previous five-year average.

Vancouver Coastal Health saw sudden deaths spike to 193, four-times the previous five-year average. Meanwhile, sudden deaths more than doubled in the Interior and Island Health authorities.

Northern Health saw a negligible increase in sudden deaths. 

The BC Coroners Service is currently conducting a broader investigation into what caused the spike in deaths, whether COVID-19 restrictions made conditions worse and what might be done in the future to save lives in the face of climate-driven extreme heat events. The results are expected in the coming months.