An unprecedented heat wave has put the BC Coroners Service (BCCS) behind in recording deaths related to the extreme heat conditions.
“The last five days in British Columbia have seen an unprecedented number of deaths reported to the BC Coroners Service,” chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a news conference on Wednesday (June 30). “Between Friday (June 25) and 1 p.m. today, at least 486 sudden and unexpected deaths have been reported to our agency.”
Due to the greater-than-usual number of reported deaths in some areas of the province, there have been delays in reaching coroners and coroners responding to scenes of reported deaths.
Lapointe said prior to the last week, there had been few heat-related deaths in B.C. in the past few years. noting the current situation caught the coroners service off guard, adding it “it took a bit of time” for the BCCS ramp up its response.
Since then, however, Lapointe said, the coroners service has adding additional coroners to try to minimize wait times, particularly in the Lower Mainland, where there has been high call volumes.
“As many of our full-time coroners as possible have now been deployed to the field and as many of our part-time coroners have been put on call,” Lapointe said.
The 486 deaths represent a 195 per cent increase over the approximately 165 deaths that would normally occur in the province over a five-day period, according to the BCCS.
The figures, however, are preliminary as coroners continue investigating and entering deaths into the BCCS reporting system that have yet to be filed.
“While it is too early to say with certainty how many of these deaths are heat related, it is believed the significant increase in deaths reported is attributable to the extreme weather B.C. has experienced and continues to impact many parts of our province,” Lapointe said.
She said the BCCS formal count is lower than the number of deaths for which the coroners service is currently receiving reports.
The BCCS expects to have updated figures released by Friday, July 2, and hopes to provide regional breakdowns by city and health authority soon.
Kamloops RCMP is reporting having attended six sudden deaths in the past five days that are suspected to be heat-related.
Anecdotally speaking, many of the apparent heat-related deaths occurring around the province are happening indoors and involve the elderly population who live alone with underlying health conditions, Lapointe told reporters.
Asked what the province should have done to prepare people for the heat wave, Lapointe said the BCCS intends to prepare a report on what can be done to prevent such deaths in the future.
“There are many things many of us can learn in terms or response, in terms of informing the public of the risk — I think it’s very likely many of us misunderstood the extreme risk,” Lapointe said, noting people who live in the Lower Mainland aren’t used to extreme heat as the coast has a moderate climate.
Lapointe said once coroners have completed filing their data, the BCCS will be looking for patterns such as region, age and gender and what other jurisdictions do in hopes to identify possible recommendations for government.
“We’ll likely be doing that over the next couple of months,” Lapointe said.
She said it’s too early to say what those recommendations might be.
Earlier this week, Premier John Horgan walked back statements over his government’s handling of the heat wave. While addressing B.C.’s restart plan at a news conference, Horgan was asked why the government didn’t do more to relay a warning. Horgan’s reply: “It was apparent to anyone who walked outdoors that we were in an unprecedented heat wave and there’s a level of personal responsibility” and that the government “did what we could” to get information out.
On his Twitter account shortly afterwards, Horgan noted “nothing can ease the pain of losing a loved one, whether it’s from the unprecedented heat wave or any other cause” and that his comments “didn’t reflect that.”
Temperatures remain high across the province, with forecast highs in Kamloops in the low- to mid-30s through the weekend and into next week.
The BC Coroners Service is advising people to check on loved ones who may be living alone amidst the heat, to drink plenty of water and to stay in the shade or in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible.