Ontario’s chief coroner says his office is investigating three deaths that may have been directly linked to the recent heat wave in eastern Canada.
As the number of heat-wave deaths soared to at least 70 in Quebec, officials in Ontario provided an update about the situation in their own province — and provided a more thorough explanation of why the numbers in the two provinces differ so drastically.
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The jurisdictions record and investigate heat deaths differently, said Ontario’s chief coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer. In short, if you have a chronic condition exacerbated by heat (like heart disease or a respiratory ailment) and die from that condition, Quebec may record that as a heat-linked death.
But Ontario’s coroner only records heat-related deaths that are deemed “accidental.” Huyer said accidental death is the result of the “direct effects of an external factor.” The case of a toddler who died in May after being left in a hot car is an example, he added. The child was otherwise healthy, but was killed by hyperthermia.
Officials wouldn’t provide any additional details about the three deaths they suspect could have been caused by the heat last week, including where they occurred in Ontario, or the ages or sexes of the victims. The investigation into each case could take several weeks to complete as evidence is gathered and tests are done.
Huyer confirmed that, in addition to the differences in reporting procedures, Ontarians do have more access to air conditioning at home (74 per cent of households have AC) compared to the Canadian average (50 per cent). In Quebec, the percentage is lower than average, at 42 per cent.
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Still, according to Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health, Ontarians definitely felt the heat last week. Emergency department visits and hospital admissions linked to the rising mercury were up in a statistically significant way, he said.
That pattern started to materialize almost as soon as the heat wave began, around June 29, reached a peak on Canada Day, and then the numbers dropped back to normal by July 7.
“So while the mortality’s not high, we do have morbidity,” said Williams, adding that the public alert and response systems seemed to work as expected.
“We can always do better. And I’m concerned that as we deal with changing climate, if the frequency of the heat alerts increases and the length and severity increases, how well our current systems … (adapt) and can respond to those extra stresses.”
Huyer added that in many ways, hospital visits tell a more accurate tale of the heat’s effect on overall public health.
“Being able to concretely describe what a heat-related death is, when it’s not an accidental death, is very, very difficult,” said the chief coroner.
“Understanding the changes of healthcare usage through the emergency departments … would be far more informative than would be the number of deaths. Deaths are really not a good measure, from a real-time point of view, to understand a health problem.”
As the region braces for yet another hot weekend ahead, the doctors added, it’s critical that people inform themselves about the signs of heat-linked illness and do everything possible to stay cool. The elderly, the very young and people with chronic conditions are especially vulnerable, they reiterated.
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