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Following a record-setting heat wave in September, Marin County Supervisors recently discussed plans for future hot days and provided tips on preventing heat-related illness.

Public Health Officer Matt Willis presented his department’s response to recent extreme heat events. The county, cities and towns are collaboratively refining plans and forecasting heat risks using the National Weather Service systems.

“We recognize that policies that may have been sufficient in the past will no longer be sufficient for the future because of the changes in the climate,” Willis said.

Marin County experienced a series of hot days in early September, which caused three hospitalizations and 22 emergency department visits. The high temperatures exceeded 100 degrees in several cities across the county, and it reached 113 degrees in Novato on Sept. 5, according to the National Weather Service.

Marin County Public Health Officer Matt Willis answers questions from the Board of Supervisors about steps his department is taking to prepare for future extreme heat events like the one in September. (Image courtesy of Marin County)

“By far the single most important risk factor for heat-related illness is social isolation,” Willis said.

Older residents and people with chronic medical conditions are at risk of heat events. Outdoor workers, substance users, young children and athletes are also more likely to be affected.

Willis gave several instances of emergency medical treatments due to overheating during the September heat wave. An older person struggling with dementia was left on the porch and exposed to the sun. A medically fragile person was at home alone without air conditioning, and an outdoor worker became dehydrated as the temperature rose.

Checking in

The county’s Department of Health and Human Services recommends checking on vulnerable family members, neighbors and co-workers, and reminds people to stay hydrated at all times, try to avoid being outdoors in the sun and wear loose-fitting clothing when it’s hot.

When using air conditioning at home, the department recommends shutting doors for unused rooms and setting 78 degrees as a minimum temperature. Other methods to keep the home cool include using fans for cross ventilation, putting shades down and avoiding using the stove and oven during the day.

The use of cooling centers is a common strategy to prevent heat-related illnesses, and it is specifically essential for residents that don’t have access to air-conditioning at home.

“We recognize that policies that may have been sufficient in the past will no longer be sufficient for the future because of the changes in the climate.”

Matt Willis, Marin County public health officer

Willis explained that cooling centers are any publicly accessible, indoor air-conditioned space.

“We are wanting to make sure that we are using existing spaces, existing infrastructure like libraries, shopping centers, etc.,” Willis said.

The department is now in the process of inventorying all the cooling center locations in the county. Ideally, the centers should have backup power during any power outages and can provide additional support such as water and food. Confirmed locations will be posted at the county’s Public Emergency Portal.

Several supervisors raised concerns over some residents’ lack of access to online information. In response, Willis talked about approaches the department may use to expand communications, such as partnering with community and faith-based organizations.

“Communication from a pastor and a church is one way of reaching that community that we may not reach through government communications,” Willis said.

Reaching out to the unhoused

Residents also asked the department to consider those experiencing homelessness in the heat.

“We recognize the need to serve our homeless residents as well, and have to have separate infrastructure for outreach and communication to that group,” Willis responded.

The urgent need for better extreme heat action was also discussed at the state level this past Tuesday. Agencies such as the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research and California Natural Resources Agency hosted the first-ever California Extreme Heat Symposium in Sacramento.

(Video courtesy of California Natural Resources Agency/YouTube)

“The extreme heat we’re facing is extraordinary and puts our communities at risk,” said Governor Gavin Newsom.

Just in September, the West Coast broke nearly 1,000 temperature records in a 10-day heat wave, and experts said to expect more heat waves in the coming years and decades, the governor added.

Last month, Newsom signed a suite of legislation to create the nation’s first extreme heat advance warning and ranking system to better prepare communities ahead of heat waves, including additional extreme heat funding totaling $365 million.

“California is taking ambition and turning it into action so we can save lives and adapt to our hotter climate,” Newsom said.

An archived video of the Marin County Board of Supervisors discussion about extreme heat can be found online.