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Baltimore faces twin crises: Heat waves and COVID-19

For many Baltimore residents, this week’s heat wave would pose challenges even without a global pandemic.

But the COVID-19 outbreak and the imperative of avoiding large gatherings of people in close proximity to each other has complicated city officials’ usual strategy of using cooling centers to help residents who don’t have air conditioning.

Officials and community organizations have responded by adapted cooling center operations to follow social distancing guidelines and tapping federal stimulus funds appropriated to fight the pandemic to aid those efforts.

The Baltimore City Health Department is using CARES Act funding to help residents stay cool, said Adam Abadir, the department’s Director of Communications.

The department’s Division of Aging will purchase and distribute 1,200 window air conditioning units and 25,000 box fans in collaboration with the Department of Housing and Community Development and Civic Work. Older residents, who have already started receiving units, were prioritized since they are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

Emergency transportation to and from cooling centers will also be available for seniors through the CARE Taxi Card program.  Pre-enrollment is typically required for this program but is waived during the Code Red Extreme Heat season, said Abadir.

The Health Commissioner issues a Code Red Extreme Heat Alert when the forecasted heat index is greater than or equal to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. A six-day heat wave with a forecasted heat index of up to 107 degrees began Friday.

The Division of Aging will also operate primary cooling centers in seven senior centers, said Abadir. Staff members have been provided with appropriate PPE, and they will enforce social distancing guidelines. Sites will also be cleaned more frequently.

To maintain at least 6 feet of physical distance, cooling centers have decreased their capacities, said Abadir. Additional community cooling centers may open up if primary locations reach their capacity, and residents are asked to contact centers directly before arriving to ensure space is available.

Everyone entering cooling centers will also be asked to wear masks, and temperature and symptom screening will be conducted for all cooling center visitors and staff. All primary cooling centers have had their HVAC systems serviced and checked for air exchange systems to maintain clean air.

Cooling centers play a particularly vital role in many of Baltimore’s poorer neighborhoods, which have been designated “urban heat islands.” Temperatures in urban heat islands are significantly hotter than surrounding areas since they have fewer trees and more concrete buildings.

During an 11-day heat wave in Baltimore in July of 2019, although the ambient temperature was 87 degrees, surface temperatures reached as high as 163 degrees in the McElderry Park neighborhood, according to report by the Capital News Service. Average annual temperatures in Baltimore have gone up more than 3 degrees over the last century, nearly twice as much as the rest of the country, CNS found.

Residents in urban heat islands have higher rates of chronic illnesses affected by heat, including asthma. These illnesses also place people at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

Some communities are setting up their own cooling centers, as they have done in the past. Still, they are unsure of how to operate in the COVID-19 era.

Ashley Goles, an administrative assistant at a mobile home community in Middle River, said staff there typically provides cooling centers with water bottles and electrolyte drinks, like Gatorade, in the rental office or community center.

The Williams Estates and Peppermint Woods community where Goles works  is planning to establish cooling centers in the rental office this summer. The community center is still not allowed to reopen due to COVID-19, said Goles. As of slightly over a week ago, the rental office was operating at 25 percent capacity.

Although mobile homes are often poorly insulated and prone to overheating, Goles said most of  the community’s homes have central air conditioning and the great remainder have window AC units.

Anne Arundel County, which has also opened cooling centers in response to the heat wave, announced Monday that it will extend their availability. Four centers will operate on Wednesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. All centers will have water and restroom facilities available.

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