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Early heatwave adds new complexity to city's COVID-19 response


A three-day heat wave promises to complicate the pandemic response in Ottawa, particularly in those long-term care homes already battling outbreaks of COVID-19.

Environment Canada issued a heat warning for Ottawa on Tuesday, noting that humidex values could reach 37 C for three consecutive days. The heat wave is not expected to break until Friday, when a cold front moves into Eastern Ontario with showers and cooler temperatures.

The City of Ottawa announced Tuesday that emergency cooling centres would open at the Ron Kolbus Lakeside Centre, Hunt Club Riverside Park Community Centre, Sandy Hill Community Centre and the S t-Laurent Complex. The centres, open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. both Wednesday and Thursday, have been set up to ensure physical distancing can be maintained, the city said. Residents are asked to wear a cloth mask if they have one.

Many of the places that people without air conditioning traditionally use to cool down — shopping malls, movie theatres and libraries — remain closed because of the pandemic.

Jane Meadus, a staff lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said she was worried that the current heat wave would exacerbate problems at long-term care homes already challenged by COVID-19 outbreaks.

Long-term care homes are not required to have air-conditioned rooms, Meadus said, and many do not. Provincial law requires long-term care homes to provide air-conditioned spaces : Any home without central air-conditioning must have at least one designated cooling area for every 40 residents.

Those homes without room air-conditioning often bring residents to cooled lobbies or dining rooms for breaks from the heat, Meadus noted. “But how is that going to work in homes where there’s a COVID outbreak?” she asked. “We’re not going to be able to cool down people in these homes without risking more infections … It could be an even bigger disaster.”

The people most vulnerable to COVID-19 — the elderly and chronically ill — are also among those most susceptible to the effects of extreme heat.

Ottawa Public Health directed questions about the heat wave and long-term care to the province, but Public Health Ontario did not respond Tuesday.

To complicate matters still more, there’s some evidence that air-conditioning units can further the spread of COVID-19. A study recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases found that nine people in a restaurant in Wuhan, China, were infected by the virus along a path that tracked the airflow of an air conditioner. The study concluded that the virus was spread by one asymptomatic diner who sat in front of the air conditioner.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said Tuesday she was unable to offer specific recommendations to the provinces about how to alleviate heat conditions at long-term care homes. She did, however, stress that any cooling measures must adhere to physical distancing requirements.

Two years ago, in Montreal, 66 mostly older people died during a July heat wave. In Ottawa, however, no deaths were officially tied to the same heat wave, according to a Toronto Star investigation published last year. That investigation revealed that Quebec had an active surveillance system to identify heat-related deaths, while Ontario did not.

“We don’t know how many people die of heat-related issues because we don’t track that information,” Meadus said. “I think that’s quite problematic.”

Air conditioning is more common in Ontario than in Quebec. According to Statistics Canada , 83 per cent of Ontario residents enjoy some form of air conditioning, considerably more than the 53 per cent of Quebecers who reported using some kind of cooling system.

Extreme heat can cause dehydration, exhaustion and stroke. Seniors, pregnant women, infants and homeless people are among those most susceptible to the effects of extreme heat.

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