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PNW medical responders save lives in heatwave

After a difficult time tackling COVID, Oregon medical teams are again taking up the call.

OREGON, USA — After a difficult year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical personnel are taking on another disaster: the heatwave.

Associated Press photos taken by Nathan Howard showcase some of the critical work being done across the Pacific Northwest.

They show medical crews in Salem responding to calls about heat-related illness. On Saturday, they helped dozens of people, some on the streets and others who collapsed while working.

Credit: AP
Salem Fire Department paramedics respond to a heat exposure call at a cooling center during a heat wave, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Salem, Ore. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Dr. Anne Toledo is chief of urgent care for Kaiser Permanente in Portland. She stressed record-high temperatures across the region are a recipe for heatstroke.

"Extremely high risk of serious medical illness," Toledo described. "You could have multiple organs fail, it's a medical emergency."

Experts like her want to prevent a repeat of history.

In 1995, more than 700 people died because of a five-day heatwave in Chicago. Temperatures exceeded 100 degrees all five days.

"If you have hundreds of people who have a serious medical emergency like heatstroke, similar to how we've been talking about with COVID for much of the year, you could easily overwhelm the medical system," Toledo said.

According to Toledo, mild heat sickness can present itself with muscle cramps or strains while people are out and about.

Heat exhaustion is more serious. Symptoms include irritability, lightheadedness, headache, goosebumps or a rash and fainting.

"This is my body warning me, you need to slow down and cool off right away," Toledo explained.

Heatstroke is the most serious. In vulnerable groups, such as older adults and small children, heatstroke can develop slowly over several days in the heat, without enough hydration.

However, heatstroke can also develop in a matter of hours in younger people, who are active outside without sufficient hydration.

Body temperatures can reach between 102-104 degrees, putting people at risk of organ failure.

Toledo said it's time to go get checked at the emergency room if someone is drenched with sweat and incoherent.

"If they seem confused or out of it at all, don't delay, go right in," she said.

KGW reached out to several regional medical systems to ask about heat-related illnesses during this weekend's heatwave.

Providence Health responded Sunday morning, saying emergency room numbers were consistent with a typical weekend and that there was no spike in heat-related illnesses so far. 

But on Wednesday, the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office reported at least 63 people have died due to extreme heat in Oregon since a historic heat wave began. 

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