How Can the City Protect Residents From Extreme Heat Amid COVID? Philly Health Experts Have Ideas

As Philadelphia enters weeks of 90-degree days, the city is faced with two crises at once: heat exposure and the coronavirus.

heat exposure

As the city fights the pandemic, they must also rethink their approach to addressing heat exposure in Philadelphia. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers)

Excessive heat exposure is a serious public health challenge. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more people die from heat each year than from all other natural disasters combined.

Meteorologists are already predicting a hot summer in Philadelphia, with some estimating the city might see consecutive 90-degree days through most of the month. This has sent City officials scrambling to come up with new ways to keep an ever-growing population of vulnerable residents safe from heat-related illness and premature death from heat exposure. When you add to that the difficulty of keeping people distanced from one another to prevent the spread of COVID-19 the threat of excessive heat exposure goes from a challenge to a crisis.

Last week, the City held a press conference to announce its plans for addressing an inevitable heat wave amid the pandemic. But most of the City’s current plans seemed to fall short of what will be needed to keep vulnerable populations safe.

As Health Commissioner Thomas Farley explained, heat is most dangerous for elderly people, people with chronic medical conditions, or people with psychiatric or developmental disabilities, especially if they’re low income or if they live alone.

One of the easiest ways to stay safe from heat and COVID-19 is to stay indoors. But many people in vulnerable populations struggle to keep cool indoors due to their lack of access to air conditioners, fans and other cooling agents.

Ideally, the City would allocate funds to provide cooling equipment to residents who need it most. But Managing Director Brian Abernathy says the City’s budget is simply too constrained to support any special programs or initiatives that would provide free or low-cost fans or air conditioning units.

“We’re going to continue to work with our non for profits and our business community to distribute fans and other supplies to protect those vulnerable populations,” Abernathy said. “It’s not something that the city’s going to be able to do on its own but we have great partners like the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) and PECO to help us provide some supports.”

The City has, however, implemented a program to distribute cooling kits that include umbrellas, tents, misting fans, super soakers and neck cooling rags to 100 “play streets” in neighborhoods that are most susceptible to heat island effect. Play streets are established by volunteers on individual blocks who set up activities for kids and partner with the City to provide meals and other activities. The City also opened 91 spraygrounds this week, which are great options for kids.

But cooling centers — city-owned spaces like libraries and recreation centers that allow anyone to drop in and take advantage of the cool air inside — and city pools, perhaps the most commonly used free resource for staying cool in summer, remain closed.

Abernathy made no mention of opening pools but said says the city’s approach to possibly opening cooling centers is one of caution.

“We are going to have to take some consideration for what’s happening with the virus at the time of a heatwave. If we have a huge spike in the virus, we may not be able to open a library, but we may be able to do something else. I think all ideas are on the table,” Abernathy said.

One thing’s for certain, with COVID-19 exposure threatening traditional methods to addressing the heat, the city is going to have to think outside of the box.

We spoke with local health experts to hear their advice on some innovative approaches the city might take to keep residents safe from heat and COVID-19 this summer. Here’s what they suggested.

Open traditional cooling centers with COVID-19 safety measures in place

“Officials may be able to implement the use of cooling centers, while also maintaining a safe environment,” said Drexel University environmental and occupational epidemiologist, Leah Schinasi.

“For example, they might implement temperature checks before admitting people into cooling centers, require that masks be worn by all staff and visitors, have separate rooms for people who demonstrate mild symptoms, and partition the room into sections to ensure distancing of visitors within the cooling facilities.”

Consider using non-traditional spaces as cooling centers

“Officials might look to places that are currently closed (e.g., movie theaters) as additional cooling center spaces,” Schinasi said.

“They should also think about whether there are larger spaces that can also be used, like high school gymnasiums or other spaces that are big and open, like empty warehouses,” added Claiborne Childs, a medical director at Penn Medicine. “Places like that have air conditioning and are so big they can provide a larger space for people to socially distance while staying cool.”

Reconsider developing a program to distribute free or low-cost air conditioners and fans, specifically to vulnerable populations

“Public health officials will have to identify ways to ensure that the places that people are social distancing (i.e. people’s homes) provide the safe, cool environment that they need during extreme heat events. This is a particular challenge for members of lower socioeconomic position communities, who may live in the hottest parts of cities, who may lack air conditioning, and who may even feel too unsafe in their neighborhoods to open their windows,” Schinasi said.

“Within the context of the current crisis, city officials may consider providing home air conditioner access to those who do not otherwise have it. In addition to providing air conditioning units, however, this will also require providing financial assistance to ensure that residents can afford to use air conditioning in their homes.”

“Spraygrounds are fine for children, but I don’t think many elderly people are going to be trekking to these outdoor spaces,” Childs added.

“I used to live in New York and the city had a program that distributed air conditioners and fans to areas where seniors lived or senior living facilities throughout the city. As I understand it, that’s not something Philadelphia is trying to do right now but I really think they should reconsider. If we know that certain homes or certain areas are going to be occupied by a lot of elderly people, providing fans or free air conditioning for the summer months could be really helpful. One of the best things you can do is provide people with the resources to stay in their own homes.”

Make sure long-term sustainability efforts (like the City’s plan to increase tree canopy cover to 30 percent by 2025) stay on track despite the pandemic

“These are all short-term solutions, which must be used in the face of a public health emergency. The use of air conditioning, in particular, is an unsustainable solution,” Schinasi said.

“In the long-term, officials must look to sustainable adaptation strategies for reducing urban heat islands and making home environments cooler. For example, landcover and housing structure changes can be made (e.g., planting trees, changing roofing colors) to provide sustainable, cooler, safer, and healthier environments.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways proven how important taking ambitious and proactive climate action is for Philadelphia and has further highlighted our risks and vulnerabilities particularly for low-income residents and communities of color,” a spokesperson for the Department of Parks and Recreation said.

“The pandemic has not led us to change the 30 percent tree canopy goal but rather has highlighted why trees play a critical role in keeping our communities safe and healthy during high heat events and has furthered our resolve that we must prioritize protecting and planting trees in vulnerable communities that have lower tree canopy. Philadelphia Parks and Recreation is currently leading a team of experts from other City agencies, non-profits, and state and federal partners to create a new comprehensive Urban Forest Strategic Plan that will identify new strategies to achieve this important goal.”

Philadelphia magazine is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.