Opinion: Are we all prepared for summer’s heat?

Heat is more than an inconvenience. Some 65,000 Americans go to the hospital each year for heat-related illness, including heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and worsening of underlying heart, lung, or kidney disease. And 2,000 Americans die from heat every year—more than any other extreme weather event.

Due to climate change, extreme heat events are becoming more common, severe, and sustained. Last month, the city of Boston opened community cooling centers and splash pads weeks earlier than prior years. Boston’s Heat Resilience Solutions reported that the number of days over 90 degrees could quadruple by the 2050s. For the well-being of our communities, more preparation for extreme heat is necessary.  

As a physician and a leader of a community climate resilience organization, we appreciate that extreme heat is a threat to public health. We know that empowering communities with the knowledge and resources to prepare for climate change reduces that threat, while making communities more healthy, sustainable, and equitable. I, Dr. Haines, felt the call to action after one of my patients, who lives alone and has diabetes, was admitted with severe dehydration and confusion during a heat wave. As a doctor who studies endocrinology, I understand the importance of our body’s entire network of hormones, and the stress on our body if the network is out of balance.

In our communities, our connections to each other and our environment are our network, and extreme weather events risk breaking the network. We have witnessed those events breaking social ties within communities, which multiplies a neighborhood’s risk on future occasions.

We need a plan for improved community networks that are resilient to climate change. The 2022 Boston Heat Plan took an important first step and recognized the importance of healthier, more connected neighborhoods to reduce exposure to heat and expand choices for staying cool. We are here to put those words into action. 

To accomplish this goal, the MGH Community Council, MGH Center for the Environment and Health, and Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW) have partnered to host workshops that provide education and resources to communities to prepare for the increasing severity and frequency of extreme heat waves in greater Boston.

The events start with fellowship over a healthy meal, followed by a discussion about how best to prepare for extreme heat events. The events conclude with resources to prepare for high temperatures, including relief kits for all attendees and a raffle for energy efficient air conditioning units. We planned with local community members to ensure these events are tailored to the community.

And we hope these workshops will become a national model for how hospitals, community centers, and climate organizations can work together to provide resources and education to prepare for extreme weather. 

Our first event at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End of Boston was a great success. Many people have not thought about who is at risk during extreme heat events, what you can do to reduce your risk, and how to ask your doctor for more information. After just 90 minutes, everyone left with a full stomach, a full brain, and an arm full of giveaways.

We have two more events planned: Thurs., June 23, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Monserrat Aspirers Community Health Center at 358 Washington St. in Dorchester, and on Thurs., July 14, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Mass Audubon Boston Nature Center, 500 Walk Hill St. in Mattapan.

We hope that you will join us. If you can’t join us, then please check out CREW’s website, climatecrew.org., for tips on preparing for extreme heat this summer, and then talk with a neighbor, family member, or friend about how to stay safe.

Ask your community’s leaders if they have a local climate resiliency plan. If they don’t, ask them to create one. We ask that you treat extreme heat with the gravity it deserves. It could save a life.

Melanie Schorr Haines, MD is an Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School Neuroendocrine Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital. Reverend Vernon K. Walker is the Senior Program Manager at the Communities Responding to Extreme Weather organization.

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