Philadelphia has a national reputation for weathering the worst of summer and minimizing heat-related deaths, but this year health officials are confronting an unprecedented variable — the coronavirus.

“It is going to be different,” said Chris Gallagher, director of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s helpline call center, which can field as many as 400 calls a day during heat waves.

Ongoing concerns about the spread of the virus likely will complicate how Philadelphia and neighboring counties will operate their cooling centers, which can be lifelines for those endangered by heat. Health experts say that spending just a few hours in a cool environment during a hot spell could save someone’s life.

Part of the city’s heat-wave response is to encourage neighbors to look in on elderly people who live alone, a population that has spiked dramatically in recent years. However, those very people might be most at risk to COVID-19 exposure.

Just what adjustments the city will make remain uncertain, even as the sun is about to beam its highest wattage of the year toward the Northern Hemisphere; the solstice occurs at 5:43 p.m. Saturday, when the sun will be directly above the Tropic of Cancer and the astronomical summer begins.

Said James Garrow, spokesperson for the Public Health Department: “Planning is ongoing.”

Heat is coming

Although the city’s 91 “spraygrounds” will be open starting July 6, the seasonal outlooks are unlikely to draw applause in the summer of social distancing, when Philadelphia’s public pools will be closed.

The government’s updated summer forecast issued this week has the entire country on the warmer-than-normal side save for an anyone’s-guess doughnut hole in the mid-Mississippi Valley.

The government's three-month outlook posted on June 18, 2020, might make one break out in a sweat.
Climate Prediction Center
The government's three-month outlook posted on June 18, 2020, might make one break out in a sweat.

Major commercial outlooks agree; AccuWeather’s forecast would translate to the potential for the hottest summer on record in Philadelphia, calling for July and August to be two to three degrees warmer than last year. The summer of 2019 was No. 12 in records dating to 1874, with an average temperature of 77.6; the record is 79.7, set in 2010.

Those outlooks might go the way of their ill-fated predecessors. Recall that the spring forecasts were mostly horrendous.

And look at what happened this week. On Monday, the National Weather Service called for the season’s first heat wave to start Saturday, coincident with the solstice, but a stubborn blob of moist air with temperature-suppressing clouds has pushed it back, if not dampened it completely.

However, a hot spell someday soon is a near lock. One thing the government is counting on in its forecast is the trend: Six of Philadelphia’s 10 hottest summers on record have occurred in the 21st century, all 10 since 1991.

Beating the heat

Coincidentally, 1991 was a pivotal year for how Philadelphia — and eventually some other cities around the world — responded to extreme heat, according to an Environmental Protection Agency white paper. After more than 20 deaths in Philadelphia were attributed to heat that year, the city convened a “Heat Task Force.”

Haresh Mirchandani, the city’s medical examiner at the time, had decided to include “heat related” deaths in fatality counts rather than strictly limiting them to hyperthermia, a core body temperature of 105. That was a controversial decision in 1993, when the city recorded 118 deaths, compared with three for New York City, and two for Washington.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention validated his method and encouraged its use elsewhere. In the historic Chicago heat wave of 1995, the county coroner estimated that 495 people had died. However, the total increased to more than 700 after an analysis of “excess mortality,” the numbers of deaths on hot days compared with the average for those calendar days.

As that extreme heat was moving eastward, city and federal officials unveiled Philadelphia’s low-cast, low-tech heat-response program, which would go into effect when the National Weather Service issued excessive-heat advisories.

It included increasing emergency medical-service staffing; a moratorium on utility shut-offs; and extending the hours for the “helpline,” now operated by PCA. It also commissioned the city’s thousands of block captains to look in on elderly live-alones.

In 1995, Philadelphia averted a Chicago-style disaster, and one study showed that the heat-alert plan saved more than 115 lives from 1995 through 1998. In the last 10 years, the city has had a total of only 83 deaths.

The EPA hailed Philadelphia as a “benchmark” for major cities.

The summer of 2020

Nothing in the state or local directives speaks directly to how, during a pandemic neighbors, should check in on the heat-vulnerable.

One thing is known: The 60-plus live-alone population has grown rapidly in Philadelphia. After nudging up just 4% from 2008 to 2013, in the next five years it jumped more than 18%, to over 103,000 people, according to figures provided by PCA.

PCA’s Gallagher said that in terms of look-in protocols, neighbors should use “common sense.”

As for cooling centers, Gallagher said the city might opt for larger spaces where people could cool off and stay away from each other. Also, he said it could set up “outdoor venues” that would be equipped with medical staff and water.

The weather should give the city a grace period. No heat waves are in the short-term forecasts, and typically it takes three to five days of continuous heat before a crisis develops.

Gallagher said one thing that will be operating is the Helpline, which typically is available from 8:30 a.m. to midnight, and nurses will be on call by email or phone.

“Everybody is working from home,” he said. “We got all the bugs worked out with that. It might even work more smoothly this year.”