PORTLAND, Ore. — How and when should the public learn about potential heat-related deaths during a heat emergency? During Oregon's deadly heat wave in 2021, the first public acknowledgement of likely heat-related deaths came on June 30 — two days after the last day of excessive heat.
This time around, the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office — with information from county medical examiner teams — is sharing public notices about potential hyperthermia deaths each day as the heat emergency unfolds.
The strategy shift can be attributed to lessons learned from last year, when at least 116 people died in Oregon from the record-high temperatures.
"I think last year made a change in our thinking across the whole state of Oregon," said Portland's Chief Resilience Officer Jonna Papaefthimiou. "We have to change our thinking and change our culture with the new climate."
The current notifications are based on county investigations at the initial scene of the death, according to a statement from the state medical examiner's office, but confirmation of heat-related deaths could take months.
Still, Papaefthimiou said ongoing notifications will likely help people take the hot temperatures more seriously.
"In this case I can say I’m really grateful for them sharing their preliminary findings, because it’s possible the knowledge of one tragedy can motivate other people to act and prevent future tragedies," she said.
The state medical examiner’s office told KGW it is recommending that counties focus on “reporting and documenting these cases in our case management system in a way that allows” tracking — meaning the state can release information about potential deaths more quickly.
The strategy can also be traced back to a state review of last year’s deadly heat wave.
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management said real-time tracking of deaths was a problem. The report listed delays in getting that information to the public as an "area for improvement." The report subsequently recommended increases in medical examiner callouts for heat-suspected deaths.
Now, that appears to be playing out. Papaefthimiou hopes the reporting will encourage people to understand the gravity of high temperatures and check on their communities throughout this weekend.
“Even if they checked on them earlier in the week, we know it’s really hard on people when they heat is extended and it doesn’t cool off at night," she said. "People that were doing okay earlier in the week, it’s important to check on them again and every day until it cools off.”