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2022 was the worst year for heat-related ER visits since 2018

This summer, 725 people visited city emergency rooms — that’s almost 13% more than during the same period in 2021, and nearly as many as in 2018.

September 29, 2022 Tanaz Meghjani and Samantha Maldonado, THE CITY
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Logo for THE CITYThis article was originally published on by THE CITY

More New Yorkers visited the emergency room due to heat-related illnesses this past summer than in each of the previous three summers, an analysis by THE CITY found.

This summer was also one of the hottest the city has seen in recent years, and included the first week-long heat wave since 2013 with temperatures hitting the mid-90s, which took place in July and elevated temperatures throughout August.

“These hotter summers and related health threats are the shape of summers to come for New York City and cities globally,” said Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and environmental health sciences professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

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This summer, 725 New Yorkers visited the ER, nearly 13% more than during the same period last summer and almost as many as in 2018, according to data from the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The average temperature between May 1 and Sept. 27 was 73.1 degrees, at least 0.7 degrees higher than during the same period in each of the previous three summers, according to an analysis of data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, making this past season one of the hottest in recent years.

In 2018, 739 people went to the ER for heat-related issues in the city. The average temperature during the same time period that year was just a decimal point above 2022, at 73.2 degrees.

The city also experienced 25 days at or above 90 degrees in 2022, as measured at Central Park, more than during any summer over the last six years.

Hot weather is linked to a higher number of heat-related illnesses. Each year, an average of 10 New Yorkers die directly from heat, and about 360 die from causes that heat exacerbates, according to the city health department. Black, low-income and senior New Yorkers are more likely to be at risk because of linked environmental and health disparities. For example, heat makes air pollution worse, which can be deadly for people with asthma, a disease that disproportionately affects Black and Latino people.

“Heat-related illness is a serious and increasing threat to the health of New York City residents as climate change warms our summers over the long term,” Shari Logan, a spokesperson for the city Department of Health, wrote in an email to THE CITY.

She pointed to work the DOHMH has done with the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice and the Office of Emergency Management to keep New Yorkers safe during heat waves, such as providing access to cooling centers and implementing solutions — like planting trees and installing green roofs — to make the hottest neighborhoods cooler.

People enjoy the water at Rockaway Beach in Queens this past July.
AP photo by Frank Franklin II

Venturing outside again

UPS driver Chris Cappadonna was one of the New Yorkers who sought emergency care, THE CITY previously reported. He experienced difficulty breathing and cramping in his hands while working a morning shift in almost 100-degree heat.

“I’ve been working for two years and I’ve never felt heat like that. That was crazy,” he said in July. “It’s just not a good situation for anybody to be working in that heat.”

Dr. Rejesh Verma, chief of the emergency department at the city-run Kings County Hospital, said the increase in ER visits this summer could also be attributed to waning pandemic restrictions.

During the summers of 2020 and 2021, New Yorkers were spending more time at home, where air conditioning could allow them to escape the heat. And COVID fears kept many people from wanting to go anywhere near a hospital in those years.

“For the last year, people have been coming out a lot more, spending more time outdoors than in the previous two years, when they tended to stay in and only go out when they really needed to. There was a lot of quarantining going on,” said Verma.

He also said his ER saw more children and young adults with heat-related issues this summer because youth sports leagues were back in session after the pandemic pause.

Typically, Verma said, he sees more elderly people, who are especially prone to summer-related illnesses like heat stroke and exhaustion.

The number of monthly ER visits this summer peaked at 285 in July, which is usually the city’s hottest month, as it was in 2022. The four people who died in the city as a direct result of heat this summer all passed away during that month, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. This number could change if any pending cases still under investigation are confirmed to be heat-related, but it’s generally on par with the number of heat stress deaths over the past few years.

New Yorkers also experienced a week-long heat wave (meaning three or more consecutive days with temperatures of at least 90 degrees) between July 19 and July 25, marking the first time the city has experienced a seven-day heat wave since 2013. The city issued its first heat advisory of the summer at the time, alerting New Yorkers to dangerous conditions and advising them to take precautions and look after each other.

Liv Yoon, who previously studied the health impacts of heat in New York City as a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia and now works in the heat division at Health Canada’s Climate Change Innovation Bureau, said the rise in emergency visits could also be related to a heightened understanding of heat-related risks, thanks to increased advisories and public messaging.

“It’s also possible now that heat has become such a forefront issue, people are more aware of it, medical personnel are more aware of it,” she said, noting that more people may proactively be seeking medical attention for heat-related symptoms.

An additional 233 people went to ERs for heat issues in August, which was one of the hottest in the past six years. There were 11 days this August when the temperature reached or exceeded 90 degrees, compared to five days last August and seven days in 2018.

Temperatures rising

Like the globe in general, New York City has gotten hotter over time, and climate scientists project this trend will persist, with heat waves in the summer months of June, July and August expected to increase in frequency, duration and intensity.

And certain parts of the city are heating up faster than others. The average temperature in Central Park in July, generally the city’s hottest month, was 6.8 degrees higher this year than in 2000. But the average temperature at LaGuardia Airport was 7.3 degrees higher, according to an analysis of data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Sept. 23 signed into law a bill that requires the state Department of Environmental Conservation to study the health and environmental impacts of heat in urban areas most vulnerable to its effects.

“This study will put us on a path toward protecting New Yorkers and making the state a healthier, more sustainable place to live for future generations,” the governor said at the time.

Rising minimum temperatures  — nightly lows — are also coming into play in New York City and can lead to health challenges.

“When moderately hot temperatures are sustained like they were this past summer, and especially if nighttime temperatures are also relatively warm, then it can place quite a bit of thermal stress on the body,” said the NRDC’s Knowlton.

Minimum temperatures are rising twice as fast as maximum temperatures in Queens, according to an analysis of data from NOAA. This impacts the body’s ability to cool down and minimizes opportunities for relief from the highs of the day, experts say.

Between 1940, the earliest year of available data from NOAA, and 2022, LaGuardia’s minimum temperature during June, July and August has been rising at a rate of 0.6 degrees per decade, compared to the maximum temperature, which has been rising at a rate of 0.3 degrees per decade.

In Central Park, the minimum and maximum temperatures have been rising at the same rate of 0.3 degrees per decade.

As the city warms, access to air conditioning and cool spaces can provide reprieve and lifesaving support.

Although over 90% of city households have air conditioning, most people who die of heat stress either had no air conditioner or didn’t have it running. Public health and environmental advocates and experts expressed concern at the start of summer that high electricity bills might discourage New Yorkers from turning on their units, thus leading to negative health impacts.

“The summer fared better than planned,” said Sonal Jessel, director of policy at the West Harlem nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

She praised those who did the work advocating for debt relief for utility customers and pointed to how so many people signed up for the state’s home energy assistance program’s cooling assistance that it ran out of money mid-summer. Signing up made applicants eligible for debt relief at the end of the year.

“Take heat seriously,” Verma said. “If you are dealing with a heat advisory day, temperatures are going to be high, keep yourself hydrated, stay away from direct sun if you can in the thick of the day.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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