Cooling centers could fuel coronavirus spread as summer heat waves hit US, warn experts
CDC also recommends converting closed businesses, including movie theaters, as alternative cooling sites
The pandemic could change how Americans seek shelter from the scorching sun. Every summer, cooling centers open their doors to many Americans who lack access to air conditioning. But with the pandemic around, these facilities could fuel the spread of the virus, experts fear.
Exposure to excessive heat heightens the risk of developing heat stroke and even death. Every year, at least 600 people die from exposure to excessive heat. "However, the use of cooling centers can result in congregating of groups of at-risk people, such as older adults or those with respiratory diseases, and potentially provide a route for the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on its website.
Experts now have to come up with a strategy that protects people from excessive heat while also preventing outbreaks in these facilities. The US has more than 1.2 million infections and over 73,400 deaths, the Johns Hopkins University estimated.
Temperature is already rising in Phoenix, Sacramento, Galveston, Texas City, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Fort Myers. Federal, state, local and tribal jurisdictions in the United States are considering opening or operating cooling centers during the pandemic, according to the CDC.
People who are often susceptible to Covid-19 are also vulnerable to heatstrokes. "Certainly in a heatwave, you do not want to take a whole bunch of people susceptible to COVID-19 and put them in close quarters in a shelter," Kristie Ebi, a professor of global health at the University of Washington, told Scientific American.
So how can experts protect them? Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, has thought of two possible solutions. The first is making it safer for people to stay in their homes; the second is giving them somewhere to go if they cannot, he told The New York Times.
In Los Angeles, authorities are trying to introduce measures that limit the spread of the virus. For instance, when temperatures in the city hit the 90s, officials opened five such facilities. They will allow people inside only after body temperature checks. While inside, they will have to wear masks and gloves at all times. Security staff will ensure that people are at least six feet apart.
The CDC put out guidelines suggesting social distancing in cooling centers. "Consider separation of furniture and creating spaces for an individual family unit," they said.
CDC also recommends converting closed businesses, including movie theaters, as alternative cooling sites. For instance, in Harris County, officials are looking at using some of the large sports venues and convention centers, Francisco Sanchez, the county’s deputy emergency management coordinator, told The New York Times.
The crisis points to a much larger issue: Climate change: "In the midst of one crisis, it's not always easy to think about another crisis," said Helene Margolis, an expert on climate and health at the University of California, Davis, told Scientific American. "When I give talks about climate change and heat stress, etc., etc., I always say we need to think about these things in advance of a crisis because that's the only way we're gonna make ethical decisions and solve these problems," she added.