Multnomah County Medical Examiner finds 51 deaths related to historic heat wave

July 1, 2021

The Multnomah County Medical Examiner Program has identified 51 deaths related to excessive heat since Friday, June 25. The preliminary cause of death is hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is an abnormally high body temperature caused by a failure of the body to deal with heat coming from the environment. 

This post is an update from an original release, issued June 30.

The people who died ranged in age from 44 to 97, with an average age of 67. They include 19 women and 31 men. (records regarding gender were not complete). Many had underlying health conditions. 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.

“This was a true health crisis that has underscored how deadly an extreme heat wave can be, especially to otherwise vulnerable people,’’ said Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. “I know many county residents were looking out for each other and am deeply saddened by this initial death toll. As our summers continue to get warmer, I suspect we will face this kind of event again.’’

The deaths occurred as County officials recorded the highest-ever number of 911 calls for medical emergencies and a dramatic spike in heat-related emergency department and urgent care care visits. 

Since June 25, when the National Weather Service excessive heat warning went into effect, there have been 149 emergency department and urgent care clinic visits for heat illness in Multnomah County.

In fact, over the weekend, we had more emergency department and urgent care visits than we would usually see in an entire summer. And that number is likely an undercount because emergency departments have been on "divert" status for some periods during the heatwave. 

The crisis peaked Monday, June 28, with 491 calls (all-time high) for 911 medical, a 63 percent increase over normal. The County Health Department is diving into the data, but anecdotally, hospitals were reporting two to five times the number of cardiac arrests and a steady drumbeat of arriving ambulances.

As the heat settled in on Friday, June 25, Multnomah County opened three cooling shelters in the Oregon Convention Center and two other locations. The County had a total of 1,040 overnight guests and served hundreds more during the daytime, as people came in for water, meals and respite. 

The cooling centers closed Wednesday, June 30 at 9 a.m. after temperatures returned to normal seasonal levels. Guests had breakfast, and those who needed were given bus tickets. Behavioral health teams were on site helping with the transition.

Throughout the heat wave, the County had nearly 60 teams of outreach workers and community volunteers covering every corner of the county since last week delivering water, electrolyte packages, cooling towels, refillable water bottles to people experiencing homelessness. It was all hands on deck.

On our busiest day of sharing water, 18,000 bottles went out in just four hours. More than 60,000 bottles total have been shared since the heat emergency started. Outreach workers also helped check on and connect with people who might have been in distress, helping them access cooling centers or emergency services as needed.

County teams also telephoned dozens of apartment building managers and hundreds of adult care home operators urging them to pay extra attention and to move people to air conditioned spaces. The County also delivered hundreds of fans to vulnerable people as quickly as possible.

Many people came into cooling centers worried about their pets. Calls for animals in crisis to Animal Services were up 300 percent. Animal Services warned pet owners to test asphalt and concrete with their own hands before allowing pets outside. Animal Services fielded 143 calls between Friday and Tuesday, 47 of them were heat related. A normal summer weekend would have five heat-related calls. In addition, two adult dogs died.

Between Friday and Monday, 7,610 people found relief at nine Multnomah County libraries, which opened or extended hours as cooling spaces.

About 800 County employees, or nearly a quarter of the County’s workforce, were involved in the response. In addition, the American Red Cross sent a team of 10 volunteers from across the country to assist. On Wednesday they began demobilizing the crisis response.