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How to survive a heat wave during a pandemic

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

In case you or your overworked air conditioner haven’t noticed, summer has arrived in full force. After a somewhat mild Independence Day weekend, we had stifling first full week of July last week with temperatures regularly registering near 90 degrees.

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 the 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.

“We are currently trying to identify all of the buildings that we can potentially use,” Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez, who heads the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said in a phone call last week. “The requirements with social distancing challenge that. If it’s a family, they can huddle together; that’s not a problem. … Every town has to have their own cooling center.”

Camden County residents should be able to find the latest list of cooling centers via the county website at https://www.camdencounty.com/service/health-human-services/cooling-centers/ or on the constantly updated state list compiled by NJ-2-1-1 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. Rodriguez has been in regular contact with fellow freeholders to check on the status of county libraries, for example. 

Social distancing rules are also forcing some buildings (like St. Joseph’s in Camden, a haven for the homeless to cool off) to drop their capacity level significantly so people can stay at least 6 feet apart. County officials recommend residents take advantage of spray pools as an alternative for heat relief. 

If people are in need of shelter, officials will have surgical masks available, as masks are required for entering a cooling center this summer. Melissa Acree, the executive director of 2-1-1 New Jersey, a state organization that connects residents with info on basic needs, said her organization has been in contact with counties throughout the state in an effort to keep their info up to date.

“It’s an unprecedented time we’re living in,” Acree said in a phone call late last month. “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.

“A lot of them, in order to save money, won’t turn on an air-conditioner,” Rodriguez explained. “And sometimes, they’ll also close their windows to keep the heat out of their house and not have it circulating. That’s problematic as well.”

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).

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

“Speak to family and friends now who may be able to accommodate,” Acree 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,” she 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 said. “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.

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