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Grappling with COVID and heat waves

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 7/31/2020 10:51:06 AM

The summer of 2020 has been unlike any other. For many, typical plans and activities have been cancelled or altered in accordance with COVID-19 and related risks.

Cooling centers, it seems, is yet another casualty of the pandemic. Typically during heat waves, towns will set up central areas to be designated as “cooling centers” where elderly and vulnerable populations as well as anyone who needs to cool off can come and do so. Some common locations are libraries or community centers, and these centers operate from a few hours per day to 24 hours per day.

Of course, cooling centers will not be able to operate as “normal” this summer, as there is a need for social distancing and other precautions to keep these at-risk populations safe from the coronavirus while they cool off.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)*, reported that the implementation of cooling centers is a good way to help mitigate the effects of extreme heat. There are many options for cooling. A cooling center is a “location, typically an air-conditioned or cooled building that has been designated as a site to provide respite and safety during extreme heat. This may be a government-owned building such as a library or school, an existing community center, religious center, recreation center, or a private business such as a coffee shop, shopping mall, or movie theatre. Some counties have set up cooling sites outdoors in spray parks, community pools, and public parks,” according to the CDC. There isn’t one particular type of agency responsible for these cooling centers - it could be by a city department, a non-profit organization, or others. One current downside to cooling centers is that they can result in these vulnerable populations congregating, which could potentially create a route for coronavirus transmission, according to the CDC.

In light of COVID-19, local officials and organizations are tasked with a unique challenge - how to provide cooling options for “vulnerable populations” while following the precautions needed to keep people safe in the midst of a pandemic. Towns across the state of New Hampshire are addressing the issue of cooling in various ways.

Populations most vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat include “outside workers, older adults, children, communities of color, the homeless, individuals with a mental health disability, individuals with chronic medical conditions, individuals without access to air-conditioning, and low-income communities” according to the CDC.

Kim McNamara, Portsmouth’s Health Officer, shared that the Health Department is concerned about the issue, and has informed their senior and disabled populations of Project CoolAir, a program through Area HomeCare that aims to assist elderly and chronically ill people and vulnerable populations against extreme and summer heat.

“In the year 2000, AHC created the Project CoolAir program. We team with local housing authorities, organizations, and merchants to raise funds for the purchase of air conditioners and provide them to this group of residents,” their website states. Qualification for these free air conditioning units is based on “income, medical condition, and the absence of air conditioning.”

This would be beneficial in the case of a heat wave, as these vulnerable populations could remain in their homes while cooling off, minimizing interaction with others and this risk of contracting COVID-19.

Philip Alexakos, the Chief Operations Officer for Manchester’s Health Department, shared that the city considers opening dedicated cooling centers when the National Weather Service (NWS) issues a Heat Advisory or an Excessive Heat Warning.

Alexakos said that the city library and some outdoor recreation areas are being phased back in. “We encourage people to visit air conditioned facilities and follow social distancing and face covering guidance when doing so,” he said. “We need to be mindful of COVID-19 in our approach to cooling, warming centers and sheltering moving forward.” He said additional cooling options will likely be available in the next few weeks, such as libraries and the senior center.

Stefanie Breton, the Public Information Officer in Concord said the city does not set up designated cooling centers. However, in a typical year there would be more places for people to go, including the City Wide Community Center and public pools. She noted that the main branch of the Concord Public Library reopened on July 13 and that the Steeplegate Mall is another place people could go this year during a heat wave. “With the pandemic and not being able to open any pools this summer due to a shortage of certified lifeguards, the City has purchased two misting stations, which will be staffed by Parks & Rec. The locations and details of these are still being worked out, but we hope to have that information together soon,” she wrote in an email.

Julia Griffin, Hanover’s Town Manager, shared several potential plans for cooling centers. Hanover’s community and senior centers have multiple air-conditioned spaces that have in the past been made available on a 24-hour basis. She said that for the most part, the senior and more vulnerable populations in Hanover live in housing that has air conditioning, so as long as there is no power failure, people can stay in their homes. Griffin said in the case of power failure and high heat, the community center and other public facilities could become public shelters.

“In the age of Covid, where we’re having to think about really minimizing the number of people in the shelter space, you could see our first move would be to spread folks out throughout our community center, which has a dozen or so rooms of varying sizes… I think you could also see the town immediately move to open up our other public facilities that are all air-conditioned, like our libraries, our town hall, our public works facility - open those up for individuals who might need a place to stay cool.”

Natalie Darcy, the Human Services Manager in Keene, said she has heard there are no cooling centers there as of now, due to the fact that there is no way to “social distance” inside them. That was the only information she had available at the time.

As of now, New Hampshire is not under a Heat Watch, Warning, or Advisory according to the NWS. However, should there be a period of extreme heat in New Hampshire this summer, residents have options to help beat the heat, even during a pandemic.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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