US heat wave leaves at least 28 dead, reports say

A scorching heat wave has gripped much of the United States in recent days, killing at least 28 people in the past week, according to reports from state officials, coroners and news organizations.

The number, based on preliminary reports from California, Oregon and Arizona, is likely to rise as authorities estimate the death toll from a heat wave that began last week, sending record temperatures across the West and scorching East Coast cities. As of Wednesday, more than 135 million people in the Lower 48 were under heat warnings, many of which are expected to last into the weekend.

Most of the deaths have been reported in California, where heat late last week broke daily records in a handful of major cities, including San Jose, Fresno and Oakland. In Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose, Chief Coroner Michelle Jorden said her office is investigating 14 cases in which people appear to have died from heat-related causes.

Jorden said eight of the deceased were over 65 and most were found in their homes. Two of the cases were homeless people and one person was living in temporary housing.

“What I want to emphasize is that these cases are still under investigation,” Jorden said, adding that it would likely take days or weeks to determine a more definitive death toll. Right now, the death toll is not alarmingly high for the region, she said, “but we are obviously going to have another heat wave that will last for the next three days.”

In addition to the California death toll, a motorcyclist died Saturday from heat exposure in Death Valley National Park, where temperatures soared to 128 degrees. Also that day, a woman incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility died when temperatures in the Central Valley, where the prison is located, soared to 110 degrees. While local authorities questioned whether the woman’s death was due to the heat wave, her daughter told the Sacramento Bee that she had complained of extreme heat at the prison for years. On Sunday, a 58-year-old Sacramento man died of heatstroke after being rushed to the hospital from his non-air-conditioned home.

Oregon appears to have seen a rash of heat-related deaths as the state struggled with temperatures above 90 degrees for days.

By Wednesday afternoon, the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office had released information about 10 victims it believed had died of heat-related causes. Six people had died in the Portland, Oregon, area; the other four deaths occurred in Washington, Coos, Klamath and Jackson counties. Half of the victims were elderly, but others were young. They included two 33-year-olds and a 27-year-old, all men. The office did not provide details about the circumstances of their deaths or the dates they occurred.

In Arizona, NPR station KJZZ reported that a 4-month-old girl died July 5 after she passed out while on a boat with her family on Lake Havasu. A spokesperson for the Mohave County Sheriff’s Department told the station that the girl had suffered a heat-related illness.

Since July, hundreds of heat records have been set in the United States, many of them in the West. Temperatures have been so high that some rescue helicopters have been unable to fly because the air has become too thin for helicopter blades to grip.

The heat waves have not spared the East Coast. Raleigh, N.C., reached a record high of 106 degrees on Friday. In Maryland, the state health department reported two heat-related deaths in the week of June 30-July 6.

The total number of deaths from the heat wave could remain unclear for a long time, and public health experts warned that official death tolls are likely an underestimate.

Although heat is the leading cause of weather-related death in the United States — killing more people than hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires combined — researchers, coroners and clinicians still struggle with how to accurately count the dead. Heat-related deaths aren’t always clear-cut; they’re often missed and instead categorized as heart failure or other cardiovascular problems, even when heat was the trigger.

In several states where residents have been cooking in extreme temperatures in recent days — including Washington state, North Carolina and South Carolina — officials said they had not received any information on heat-related deaths at this time. California’s Department of Public Health was unable to provide a statewide estimate of suspected heat-related deaths by press time.

Federal data shows that heat-related deaths in the United States have been steadily increasing in recent years, reaching just over 2,300 in 2023. In 2021, there were about 1,600 heat-related deaths, and in 2022, there were about 1,700.

Ashley Ward, director of the Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke University, said there are signs that the reporting and classification of these deaths is improving. In the past, she said, it has been very difficult to get public interest in the dangers of heat. But that is starting to change.

“The extreme nature of the heat last summer and this summer has put it on everyone’s minds, including those responsible for classifying health outcomes and deaths,” Ward said. “Awareness plays a critical role in

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