Multnomah County releases preliminary analysis of race, age and location of excessive heat deaths

July 3, 2021

Multnomah County today released preliminary details in the 59 deaths identified by the Multnomah County Medical Examiner program in which the suspected cause is hyperthermia.  The deaths occurred during a record-shattering heat wave that fell over the region beginning June 25. Of the deaths, 30 have been formally ruled hyperthermia, or death by excessive heat. 

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

In determining the cause and manner of death, death investigators from the Multnomah County Medical Examiner Program make preliminary observations that may be further refined after interviews with next of kin, funeral directors and others. They reported the first hyperthermia deaths June 27 with almost 95 percent being reported on and after June 28, the peak of the heat wave.

“The County’s death investigators are working to understand where a decedent is from, where they died, with notes specific to the circumstances of each death. This part of the work takes time to do right and is top priority for informing our prevention efforts for the rest of the summer and into the future,’’ said Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines.

The people who died ranged in age from 44 to 97, with an average age of 68. They include 20 women and 39 men, numbers that may not reflect an individual’s gender identity. Records regarding gender are not complete. 

Death investigators found that 52 of those who died were white with small numbers among other races/ethnicities. This information is preliminary and will be refined as death investigators complete their work.

Deaths occurred in nearly every corner of the County, with someone succumbing in more than 20 of Multnomah County’s ZIP codes. Almost all ZIP codes affected had at least one death; no ZIP code had more than five.

Preliminary map of place of heat deaths June 27 - July 2, 2021

Many people had underlying health conditions and many of those who died were found alone, without air conditioning or a fan. The 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.

“Over the coming days and weeks we will continue to gather and analyze local death data to better understand the specific risks of heat-related death. While we continue to build out a robust public health system and response with 24-hour cooling centers, direct outreach and teams in the field, we are humbled by this death toll and committed to learning everything we can about how to prepare for future events,’’ said Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey.

“This tragic event is almost certainly a glimpse into the future for Multnomah County, Oregon, the nation and the world,’’ Guernsey said. “The impacts of climate change with heat waves, severe winter weather, wildfires, floods, and other rippling effects are happening now and will happen with more frequency for the foreseeable future.”