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Deaths during B.C. heatwave surpass 800

Last Updated Jul 16, 2021 at 9:47 pm PDT

FILE - A B.C. ambulance paramedic is seen outside the Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

808 people died between June 25 and July 1, when temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius in some B.C. communities

It is believed the extreme weather was a significant contributing factor to the massive spike in deaths

Fraser Health recorded 353 deaths, accounting for 43.7 per cent of the total

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Deaths linked to B.C.’s recent heatwave may be much higher than initially estimated.

Updated preliminary numbers from the BC Coroners Service show 808 people died between June 25 and July 1, when temperatures topped 40 degrees in many communities across the province. The latest numbers are up from 719 reported last week. The average for that time period over the previous five years is 198.

It’s not yet clear exactly how many deaths are heat-related because investigations and autopsies haven’t been completed, however, it is believed the extreme weather was a significant contributing factor. Many of those who died were seniors living alone.

“Our anecdotal observations are that it does appear to be largely senior citizens who are living alone, perhaps in residences with poor ventilation, that sort of thing, who are among the highest number of deaths that we’re recording,” Ryan Panton with the coroners service said.

While totals were well above average in all B.C. health regions, the Fraser Health region recorded 353 deaths, accounting for 43.7 per cent of the total. Vancouver Coastal Health region reported 202 deaths, while Interior Health, Island Health, and Northern Health saw 122, 98, and 33 respectively.

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B.C. launched an independent review, led by the chief coroner into how the province handled a heatwave.

“Our priority right now is on communicating with families who have lost a loved one, ensuring that each death is thoroughly investigated, and determining which deaths were as a result of the increased heat,” Panton said. “Once we’ve done that, we’ll be in a better position to determine the type of review that we’ll undertake.”

On Wednesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced the province is hiring 85 full-time paramedics and 30 full-time dispatchers, and purchasing 22 ambulances. A chief ambulance officer will now lead BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS), and former Vancouver Police chief Jim Chu was appointed  chair of BCEHS’ board of directors, which has been directed to “focus solely on ambulance services.”

The announcements followed the deaths, reports from emergency service workers of a system-wide failure, and backlash over the province’s preparations for the heatwave.

A flood of calls to 911 resulted in long wait times for people who required emergency services, and compounded the ongoing problem of lengthy ambulance wait times. An ambulance dispatcher on the Lower Mainland said once the temperature started to rise, call volumes skyrocketed.

‘We need to pivot in our focus and response:’ seniors advocate

B.C.’s Seniors Advocate, Isobel Mackenzie, says the province needs to change its approach when it comes to protecting those most vulnerable to illness and death — particularly given there is still a long stretch of summer left and another heatwave is possible.

“We all anticipate that a significant number of the deaths will be heat-related, not all of them, but I think that we recognize that’s going to be a factor in driving the extraordinary additional unexpected deaths we had,” she says.

“The biggest risk out there wasn’t to people in long-term care, it was seniors living in the community, in apartments, and predominantly alone.”

The strategies of warning people extreme temperatures are coming, asking people to check in on seniors, opening cooling centres, and offering tips on how to mitigate the effects of extreme conditions were not, according to Mackenzie, effective during the deadly heatwave.

“For many people, telling them it’s coming, getting them prepared saying you should do these things is sufficient, but there are a group of people — I would say, more predominantly housebound, frail seniors — where we can’t be certain the message is getting to them, and where they aren’t going to be able to do those things for themselves,” she says.

“One of the things is how you get yourself to the cooling centre. Even more rudimentary, some people aren’t able to have a cooling shower on their own, they can’t bathe on their own, they can’t get up and open all the windows and close the drapes at the various times of day they need to do that. I think we need to go one step further and start reaching out and directly contacting those whom we have identified as the most vulnerable during extreme heatwaves. We need to pivot in our focus and response.”