The city of Chicago will revamp an emergency plan in the wake of more than 400 heat-related deaths that left hospitals and emergency medical service workers reeling.
In what is being called the city's worst disaster since the great Chicago fire of 1871, the heat wave forced 16 hospitals to close their emergency rooms during and after three days of 100-plus degree temperatures and high humidity. Hospitals declared a "bypass" situation when all heart-monitored beds were in use, forcing ambulance crews to divert patients toward the closest available facilities.
"This definitely stretched all resources," said Leslee Stein-Spencer, chief of emergency medical service and highway safety for the Illinois Department of Public Health. "Usually with disasters you have a finite number (of casualties) and you know an end result. With this, you don't."
The heat wave spread across the Midwest and East Coast with coroners in at least 15 states reporting heat-related deaths. Nearly 70 people died of heat-related deaths in Milwaukee, and at least 14 were reported dead in New York City.
Temperatures were as high as 106 -an all-time Chicago record-on July 13. The heat wave lasted three days.
Even those hospitals that were able to accept patients didn't get patients early enough, seeing numerous cases of dead-on-arrival patients. "We had six DOAs in one hour last Saturday (July 15)," said Geraldine Conrad, a spokeswoman for Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center on Chicago's South Side. "We were getting patients from as far as 130th Street and Halsted and that's more than 100 blocks south of us."
Some hospitals saw daily admissions jump nearly 60%. "Most of the patients were heat-related: heat stroke, asthma, vertigo and fainting," Conrad said.
Michael Reese typically sees 99 patients and admits 18, but saw 118 to 134 July 15-17. Daily admissions soared to 32 on the 15th and to 30 on the 17th.
After a much-criticized response by the city, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley last week said his office is seeking advice from the city of St. Louis, which has a history of battling heat waves.
Chicago's current plan lets people know cooling centers are available but doesn't mention location or transportation. Some of Chicago's cooling centers were empty during the heat wave.
In the summer of 1980, St. Louis experienced a devastating heat wave that killed more than 100 people. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came in later to do a study on causes and prevention of heat deaths.
The next year, the city activated Operation Weather Survival. The task force meets regularly through the year and has an early warning system. In a heat wave it tries to reach elderly and at-risk people.