70% of sudden deaths recorded during B.C. heat wave were due to extreme temperatures, coroner confirms

The chief coroner in B.C. has confirmed the majority of people who died suddenly during the week of June’s record-breaking heat wave passed away as a direct result of the extreme temperatures.

Lisa Lapointe confirmed in an interview on Thursday morning that 570 of the 815 sudden deaths recorded over that time period — 70 per cent — have now been deemed “heat related.”

“[If not] for the extreme heat, they would not have died at that time,” Lapointe said during an interview with CBC’s The Early Edition.

Seventy-nine per cent of those who died were 65 or older, she added.

“Many, many of those who died had underlying health conditions. So, they were more vulnerable to extreme heat,” she said.

“Some people died in their single-family home, sitting in their living room, in their armchair. But [they had] doors and windows closed and the temperature was well above 30, 35 C,” she added.

“Just not realizing that when your body gets that hot, particularly if you have if you have some frailties already … the body just can’t cope.”

Temperatures soared to record levels throughout B.C. during the last week of June, peaking on June 28 and 29. More than 100 all-time records were shattered across Western Canada, including in several B.C. communities that sweltered in temperatures of more than 40 C.

More than 300 sudden deaths were reported throughout the province on one day alone — June 29, the day Lytton shattered Canada’s all-time temperature record.

The overall number of sudden deaths represented a nearly 300 per cent increase from the average number recorded over the same week between 2016 and 2020.

Coroner investigating how many died waiting for help

First responders were stretched to their limit during the wave. At times, dispatchers had more than 200 calls waiting for a response. Paramedics told CBC News lower priority calls were left unattended for anywhere from four to 16 hours.

The coroners service will investigate how many people died waiting for help. Lapointe said some people couldn’t have been saved, even if they had made it to hospital.

“There were a number of people who knew they were experiencing hyperthermia or [who were] feeling very unwell and whose families brought them in, or who who were brought in by ambulance … but they could not be revived and died despite medical attention,” she said.

The province typically sees far milder summers.

Many communities saw little reprieve from the heat at night, with temperatures seldom dipping below 20 C. Lapointe said those in urban areas, especially, were caught off guard.

“We think about cold weather and we would never stay in our house in below-zero temperatures for several days in a row with no heat … we would get our elderly relatives and friends to somewhere warmer,” she said. 

“We haven’t thought about that the same way with heat … we have to think about things differently.”

Lapointe said municipalities and community leaders across the province have been calling her office for information as they work to create a better response plan for future heat waves. 

“I don’t think anybody in the province, from the public health officials to the general public, really understood that we may see over 500 deaths in a week due to the heat,” she said.

“We have never seen something like that in this province. Not that I’m aware of in the last 30 years doing this kind of work. Absolutely unprecedented.”

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