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.

“There are added challenges,” said Burlington County Freeholder Dan O’Connell, who serves as liaison to the Health Department, Public Safety and Public Works. 

“Prior to the pandemic, we would make suggestions to people like, to go to a library or to go to the mall,” he continued. “The problem is now, in the pandemic era, the library isn’t open and the malls, while they’ve reopened (have restrictions). But, it’s better than nothing and I’m glad that they’re open and at least it gives the people without air conditioning some place to go to at least get out of this heat.”

Burlington County residents are encouraged to stay tuned to the county’s social media channels (@BurlCoNJ on Twitter, Burlington County Health Department on Facebook) and its website (co.burlington.nj.us) for regular weather and pandemic-related updates. A constantly updated list of cooling centers throughout the state, compiled by NJ-2-1-1, can be found at https://www.nj211.org/nj-cooling-centers

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. 

“We’re all learning as we go with this; it’s all new to us,” O’Connell said prior to a Freeholders meeting last week. “We’re trying to do our best to get information out … To try to stay away from heat exhaustion, we recommend people try to take a colder shower or use a cold compress to try to alleviate some of the heat. If you don’t have air conditioning, use a fan. I find sometimes having air circulating and moving, rather than have it being so still, on a hot day it can help. 

“But again, we’re following all of the recommendations of the governor’s emergency orders on this stuff and that precludes us from having libraries available,” the freeholder added. “They were one of the resources that we had that at the present time we just don’t have.”

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 our 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.

“I’ll be 70 later this year and luckily I’m in good health (but) I live alone,” said O’Connell, a Delran resident “My neighbor, she’s 90-something. And she noticed my car didn’t move for a couple of days so she called me.”

O’Connell chuckled.

“The older person was checking in on the younger person to make sure I was OK,” he said. “I had to tell her, ‘I did go out, but the car went back to the same spot and you just didn’t notice.’ But it’s great advice. And we’ve been talking about this since the lockdown.

“The people that are by themselves, the elderly, this could be especially tough for them, so we urge our residents to check in with them regularly, older family and friends and even neighbors who may be by themselves, just to make sure that they’re OK.”

County officials recommend reaching out to the Division of Senior and Disabled Services at (877) 222-3737 for additional information on resources available to seniors, including fan giveaways and 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 and Disabled Services, residents should be aware of other services, 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.

“Heat stroke is very serious and we want everyone to stay informed,” O’Connell said. 

If someone does become overwhelmed by heat they should be moved to a cool and shaded location. In an emergency, dial 911. For more information contact the Burlington County Health Department at (609) 265-5548 or visit https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/index.html.