Death toll rises in historic health wave as Medical Examiner identifies 59 suspected deaths

July 2, 2021

Since the National Weather Service issued its Excessive Heat Watch June 25, the Multnomah County Medical Examiner Program has identified 59 deaths in which the suspected cause is hyperthermia. Of those, 20 have been formally ruled hyperthermia deaths. 

The people who died during this historic heat wave ranged in age from 44 to 97; with an average age of 68. They include 19 women and 39 men. Records regarding gender were not complete. Many people had underlying health conditions and many of those who died were found alone, without air conditioning or a fan.

For comparison, for all of Oregon between 2017 and 2019, there were only 12 deaths from hyperthermia.

There’s much we don’t yet know about the people who died, including how many were experiencing homelessness. The overwhelming majority of people died in their homes, but at this stage, we are not able to release the exact number of people experiencing homelessness because of missing information and because establishing homelessness takes intensive death investigation and follow-up. 

Every year, numerous people initially identified as houseless are ruled out after investigation. It is an established practice of the Medical Examiner and the Health Officer to share housing information only after an investigation of individual housing status.  

Multnomah County has conducted death investigations of people who died experiencing homelessness every year since 2011 in a report called Domicile Unknown. This study was started by Chair Deborah Kafoury and conducted by the Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Program and the Multnomah County Heath officer.

“We share the public’s interest in understanding the circumstances that caused these deaths, and we’ll be looking closely for any trends that can help us target prevention and outreach in future heat events to protect vulnerable residents,’’ said Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County Health Officer. 

The Medical Examiner’s Office is still responding to cases; cases that will take time to review and finalize; and that deeper analysis will take time. The County plans to share those findings with the public, as it will help all of us plan for and respond to emergencies.

“We deeply hope these numbers will not climb, but we also know that it will take several more days before the full toll is known. The same isolation that puts people at risk for a heat-related death may delay whether we find out if someone succumbed,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “Please continue to check on your neighbors.”