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Why was the Arizona heat so deadly in 2020?

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Posted at 6:45 PM, Jun 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-02 21:45:53-04

PHOENIX — The year 2020 was the deadliest on record for heat-related causes in Arizona with 520 recorded statewide, including 323 in Maricopa County.

A report released by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health found a 62% increase in heat-related deaths over 2019.

While experts say there is no single reason for the spike in deaths, record-breaking temperatures and measures taken to reduce COVID-19 exposures are suspected to have played significant roles.

Liza Kurtz, a researcher with the ASU School of Human Evolution & Social Change, who is part of a group that studies the health and social effects of extreme heat, told ABC15 the deaths are a solvable problem that was made much more difficult during the pandemic.

"Many of the resources that folks relied on--especially people of lower-income status, or people who might otherwise be marginalized in society, people experiencing homelessness-- many of the resources that they relied on to get out of the heat were not available to them due to COVID-19," she said.

Cooling centers and hydration stations that are open during the hottest hours of the summer were not an option in 2020.

"Understandably, many of our partners, to protect the health of our workers on their public shut down during COVID-19," she said.

That meant few places to cool off for people without air conditioning, especially those experiencing homelessness.

According to the County report, of the 323 people who died from heat-associated causes, 172 were experiencing homelessness.

Most of the rest of those who died had housing with the exception of 35 people whose living situation was listed as unknown in the report.

See the full 2020 report from Maricopa County below.

That means dozens of people who were housed still died after heat exposure.

Kurtz said their deaths suggest they also had social needs that surpassed heat relief, that were not being met.

"If you reach the point where you die from extreme heat, you have been failed by many other systems along the way," she said. "This is in general, not something that kills people who are wealthy, who are well supported in their social networks, who have access to air conditioning."

Among the deaths where an air conditioner was present 69% were non-functioning, 31% functioned but were not being used, according to the report.

"(Some) people who die indoors have air conditioning, they have access to electricity," she said. "But they're either not using it because they're afraid of the cost or the air conditioning is broken."

Kurtz said the full details surrounding each death will take researchers years to compile but the one part is already clear, "Heat deaths are a diagnostic tool for where we're failing to take care of our most vulnerable as a society," she told ABC15.

One bright spot in the findings was that the percentage of indoor deaths was the lowest it had been since 2011. Kurtz suspects one reason for that is utilities suspending disconnections during the pandemic.

"This summer gave you a little more leeway in terms of, 'turn that AC down, they're not going to shut you off'. And that might have helped prevent some indoor heat deaths in terms of keeping people cool in their homes."