How to survive a heat wave during a pandemic

COVID-19 affects capacity and availability of regular cooling centers.

After a mild June, summer came in like a lion when the calendar flipped to July. Independence Day weekend brought temperatures north of 90 degrees on consecutive days for the first time in 2020.

And that doesn’t include the “feels-like” temperature when you factor in humidity.

It’s hardly surprising, of course, since July is supposed to be hot in South Jersey, but it’s a concern for people trying to stay cool during what’s already been a challenging spring and summer. 

Which leads to an important question: Will the COVID-19 pandemic have an effect on access to cooling centers? With a heat wave around the corner, inquiring minds reached out to representatives from the state and county to find out.

While traditional refuges like libraries aren’t all open to the public yet, there are other places residents can go to cool off and stay safe, too.

“We are encouraging people to stay away from crowds and it is absolutely a challenge today with the guidelines in place,” said Tamarisk Jones, Gloucester County’s director of health.

“We want people to stay home when possible to avoid that non-essential travel when they can. And yet if you are somebody without air conditioning at home or somebody that is looking for that relief, at this point we encourage them to visit or frequent close family that’s involved in their life, hopefully a close inner circle of friends they can reach out to to provide that respite for them. 

“Certainly many (people) are involved with their faith-based communities,” Jones added, “so I know many of the churches are willing to have their parishioners come in if needed. We also encourage people to go to the malls, some of the retail establishments that are open, just to get out of that dead heat of the middle of the day. It’s important to take those steps to give yourself a break.”

Gloucester County residents are encouraged to check out resources on the county website (http://www.co.gloucester.nj.us) and to stay tuned to social media channels for emergency services (@GloCoOEM on Twitter and Gloucester County Emergency Management on Facebook) for regular weather and pandemic-related updates. Keeping those websites handy will be vital for people still uncertain as temperatures rise and various buildings and businesses in the county reopen at their own rates during the pandemic. 

Social distancing rules are also forcing some buildings to drop their capacity level significantly so people (wearing masks, of course) can stay at least 6 feet apart. 

“Make sure you stay hydrated. Certainly it’s very important if you’re out and about, to wear light clothing, don’t spend a lot of time in the heat if you can, wear a face covering like a hat and other protective clothing,” Jones said. “And we always want people to look out for the elderly and small children, those that you know need that extra support and care.”

Jones encouraged seniors in need of assistance to take advantage of the county’s Office of Senior Services (856-384-6900). Anyone who is homeless or in need of help with utilities, should contact the Division of Social Services (856-256-2113) during business hours. After business hours, residents are encouraged to call 2-1-1. 

A continually updated list of cooling centers throughout the state, compiled at NJ-2-1-1’s website, can be found at https://www.nj211.org/nj-cooling-centers

Melissa Acree, the executive director of 2-1-1 New Jersey, a state organization that connects residents with information on basic needs, said her organization has been in contact with counties throughout the state in an effort to keep that info up to date.

“It’s an unprecedented time we’re living in,” Acree said. “I think the good news is that things are slowly starting to open up more and more each week. And even though all of the cooling centers at this moment are not available, certainly we know the malls will be opening. So during the day, that will be an option. We’ll see about libraries and senior centers … 

“Each county has worked very hard to find creative, alternative solutions,” Acree added. “So I am confident that they are going to be resourceful and they’re going to partner and collaborate with community agencies and schools and other types of organizations in their county to figure out what we can do temporarily.”

Unfortunately the residents most susceptible to health issues during a heat wave are the same ones most vulnerable during a pandemic: senior citizens.

Sometimes it’s as easy as using your own common sense and the selfless mentality of looking out for one another to make sure older people are safe. Check in on your elderly aunt. Drop in at your grandfather’s house to make sure his air conditioning is running properly. Since they’re less active and staying in more, some senior citizens might not even realize how hot it is outside.

“We’re all about community, more than ever now,” Jones said. “And I think you’ve seen a different sense of community and unity come together to understand the importance of this virus and that we’re not only adhering (to rules) but that we’re looking out for each other as well. More than ever, it’s so important.

“Those of us who have lived in certain neighborhoods for a while, you know who is down the street and doesn’t have anyone visiting often,” Jones added. “Make sure you go by and check on them. It’s so nice (to look out for each other) and I hope people will do that.”

On June 24, Gloucester County’s Office of Senior Services had a fan distribution event in preparation for the dog days of summer. Jones said fans are still available for those in need and that county officials will be happy to work with seniors who are still in need. (Again, Senior Services can be reached at 856-384-6900.)

Residents can also reach out to the state’s Division of Senior and Disabled Services at (877) 222-3737 for additional information on resources available to seniors, including programs that could make them eligible for air-conditioning units (the latter for those with extreme health issues). Also worth noting: The state’s Department of Human Services can be reached at (888) 285-3036.

Since peak summer weather is just getting started, Acree recommended that people continue to plan ahead in order to keep the elderly safe as they battle the heat, in addition to COVID-19.

“Speak to family and friends now who may be able to accommodate,” she  said. “I know we’re very concerned with social distancing, but you may have a relative that lives on their own. And you could have them stay with you because they have air conditioning in a separate room.

“So think about your own resources that are in your support system of family, friends and neighbors, and just see if anything there is a possibility,” Acree added. “Plant that seed.”

In addition to the information available through the county’s Senior Services, residents should be aware of other options, too.

“If any of these seniors are receiving utility assistance through LIHEAP (Low-income Energy Assistance Program), there is another program that they’re eligible for called Weatherization,” Acree explained. “The Weatherization program will, depending on eligibility, provide air conditioning.”

Residents can look into their eligibility at njcommunityresources.info/njenergy.html.

It’s also worth reminding everyone that no one (child, pet, adult) should be left in a parked car during the summer and that pets shouldn’t be kept outside for lengthy periods of time. Additional tips for dealing with the summer heat can be found at nj211.org/summer-heat.

If someone does become overwhelmed by heat, he or she should be moved to a cool and shaded location. In an emergency, dial 911.

For more information contact the Gloucester County Department of Health and Human Services at (856) 218-4101 or visit https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/index.html.