As temperatures have soared into the 90s this week, Milwaukee residents face two intersecting challenges: how to stay cool during a pandemic that has closed most in-person respites from the heat.
Libraries, senior centers, churches and other air-conditioned spaces have historically served as cooling sites, but they are currently closed to in-person visits because of COVID-19. Other places to go for relief from heat have limited their capacity and require social distancing.
In addition, the pandemic has delayed the city’s preparations to battle extreme heat – the number one weather-related killer in Wisconsin, according to the National Weather Service.
The Milwaukee Heat Task Force, a collaboration of almost 40 community organizations and government agencies, identifies and organizes cooling sites each year to provide residents most vulnerable to excessive heat with resources and information as part of its 2019 Excessive Heat Event Coordination Plan.
"Excessive heat events" are identified by heat index values, which measure how hot it really feels when factoring humidity with the actual air temperature. The local criteria that signals extreme heat is a maximum heat index of about 95 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Because of COVID-19, the task force has not been able to meet and will not be able to provide an update to the plan for 2020, said Dr. Nick Tomaro, the public health emergency response planning coordinator for Milwaukee.
"It doesn’t mean we aren’t planning," he said. "But, like most things in the COVID response, there’s a lot we have to respond to on short notice."
When people call 2-1-1 during hotter weather months, operators direct them to the cooling sites in their ZIP codes, said Vickie Boneck, the director for marketing and communications at IMPACT 2-1-1.
Calls to the hotline, which serves as the area’s central access point for people in need, tripled from 500 to 1,500 a day at the start of the pandemic in March, Milwaukee NNS reported in May.
"The community response to extreme heat has been hampered by COVID-19 restrictions," Boneck said, adding there now are cooling center resources available as IMPACT 2-1-1 resource specialists continue to help callers.
One official cooling center is currently open, according to a recent announcement from the City of Milwaukee Health Department. North Division High School, 1011 W. Center St., will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 7 to July 10. Officials will reassess the need to stay open closer to the weekend.
(Anyone seeking relief from the heat is asked to enter through the MKE REC entrance adjacent to the tennis courts and practice social distancing. There will be water, meal service and masks available in the air-conditioned gym, according to a news release.)
Who’s at risk?
The same populations at highest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 also face the highest risks of heat-related illnesses or heat mortality. People with underlying medical conditions like cardiovascular disease and the elderly are part of the most vulnerable populations, but it is hard to protect them from both extremes at once.
As people at higher risks for COVID-19 are encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and city officials to stay home, many lack access to air conditioning and experience social isolation, a risk factor for heat-related mortality, according to the Milwaukee County Heat Vulnerability analysis.
The analysis, which was created by Building Resilience Against Climate Effects program within the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, also shows how summer heat feels different depending on where you live.
Milwaukee’s North and South Side neighborhoods are the most vulnerable locations during excessive heat, in comparison to neighborhoods closest to the lake, according to this map. These most vulnerable neighborhoods are made up of predominantly African American and Latino residents, who have disproportionately been impacted by COVID-19.
Help is available
To get connected with information or resources in hot weather, call the Milwaukee County Aging Resource Center at 414-289-6874 for assistance.
For free information and assistance regarding community resources and services for adults with differing abilities ages 18 to 59, you can call the Disability Resource Center of Milwaukee County at 414-289-6660.
The hotline staff members have been working since the pandemic’s start to connect callers with resources they need, and to get answers to whatever questions they have.
"We want to be that no wrong door, that one-stop-shop," said Shakita LaGrant-McClain, interim director of the Milwaukee County Department on Aging.
Other resources available to cool down
- We Energies’ moratorium on energy bills ends on July 15 and disconnections can begin on July 25. If a resident in Milwaukee County has a utility disconnect or needs support in paying a utility bill, contact Milwaukee County Energy Assistance online or call 414-270-4653.
- All MCTS buses are air-conditioned and can serve as cooling centers during the extreme temperatures, according to its website. In the event of extreme heat advisory, specific buses for providing respite from heat will be available.
- Though deep-well pools are not open this season, Milwaukee County Parks opened wading pools and splash pads at eight locations over the weekend. Parks officials say they hope to add more to the list in the coming weeks and that the open facilities will have limited capacity.
- Some Milwaukee County parks and beaches are open this summer, and you can see the complete list with hours here.
Here are tips on being prepared for summer heat from Milwaukee County:
- Avoid unnecessary trips outside. If it is necessary to go outside, apply sunscreen generously and wear lightweight, loose fitting clothing.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids even if you do not feel thirsty. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol.
- Check on your family members and neighbors who do not have air conditioning, who spend much of their time alone or who are more likely to be affected by the heat.
- If you or someone you know is experiencing dizziness, headache, muscle cramps, weakness, and nausea or vomiting, it is important to cool down, get in the shade or indoors, and drink water or juice. If the symptoms escalate to include hot/dry skin, confusion, unconsciousness, chest pain or shortness of breath, call 911.
- It is NEVER safe to leave a toddler, disabled person or pet locked in a car.
- Don’t leave pets outdoors. Most dogs, and all cats, are safer indoors, except when taken out for exercise.