Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.
With much of the country feeling the “polar vortex” and some of the coldest temperatures seen in 20 years in some places, reporters may be called upon to write about health – and death – in cold weather.
Hypothermia is the unintentional lowering of the body’s core temperature below 95º F. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common risk factors for hypothermia include exposure to cold while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, altered mental status and immersion in cold water. Other factors can include advanced age, chronic medical conditions, substance abuse and homelessness.
According to the review, “Most of these poisonings occurred among children and elderly persons and resulted from exposures in idling automobiles with exhaust pipes blocked by snow.” During one two-day stretch, 21 people who had been found unconscious in running cars were brought to the Jacobi Medical Center in New York. In that spirit, the investigators look at the individual cases of a 4-year-old girl (left in the car because her family thought she was napping), and two older men. In all cases, their primary mistake seems to have been in starting cars surrounded by deep snow without making any attempt to remove the snow first.
A review of studies related to 1978 storm in New England found that, during the blizzard, mortality rates didn’t increase significantly (though a third of the deaths that did happen were classified as storm-related), and that emergency room visits declined to less than half their normal levels. Hospitals also had supply problems because they could not discharge patients.
To solve these problems, the authors recommend that officials ask folks not to drive during storms (and to bring emergency supplies if they do), and to create a “rumor clearinghouse” to investigate reported hazards and outbreaks. They also suggest that overcrowded hospitals can use emergency vehicles to bring discharged patients home.
Most of the 44 patients studied were members of ethnic minority groups, and half didn’t speak English. In 65 percent of the cases, the cause was burning charcoal briquettes. All those incidents, the study noted, involved racial/ethnic minorities.