Summer heat and coronavirus: What you need to know

A woman with a face mask leaves the Las Canteras beach amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, on the island of Gran Canaria, Spain May 25, 2020. (Reuters Photo)
A woman with a face mask leaves the Las Canteras beach amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, on the island of Gran Canaria, Spain May 25, 2020. (Reuters Photo)

Laurie Goering

Thomson Reuters Foundation


This summer is shaping up to be one of the hottest on record, and dealing with growing heat stress while battling the coronavirus pandemic will be a significant challenge.


A practical guide to managing the health risks of extreme heat during the COVID-19 pandemic was launched this week by The Global Heat Health Information Network, a volunteer group of scientists, practical experts and policymakers.

 

Here are the big takeaways: Why is this guidance so important?

2020 is likely to be another of the hottest years on record, with global temperatures forecast to be more than 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average as climate change strengthens, according to Britain's Met Office.


So far, there is no clear science indicating COVID-19 transmission falls in hot weather or sunny conditions - the virus has not been around long enough for scientists to collect the evidence they need.


For now, if you want to stay safe, it's better to focus on staying cool - and keeping two metres away from others, the experts say.


But the pandemic will compound the risks of hot weather for many people.


For example, the additional strain imposed by heat stress on a person with a weakened immune system can further erode their ability to fight off COVID-19.


Experts are urging countries and communities to take action now to lower the risks as peak summer heat approaches.
Who is most vulnerable to the combination of hot weather and coronavirus?


Anyone can succumb to heat stress and COVID-19 but those most vulnerable include people over aged 65 and those with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, respiratory illness or diabetes.  


Essential workers whose jobs involve being outdoors during the hottest times of the day, working in places that are not temperature-controlled, or wearing heavy protective gear are particularly vulnerable to high temperatures.


So are pregnant women, the homeless, and people in institutions like prisons and nursing homes that lack adequate cooling and ventilation, or the ability to maintain safe spacing.

 

What can be done at work? Will using fans and air conditioners spread the virus?

Fans are great for cooling if you're alone in a room but if you're sharing the space with others who don't live with you, fans should be avoided, the heat network's guidance says.


If that's not possible, try to increase the amount of outdoor air the fan is moving, and avoid a fan blowing from one person directly at another.


Air conditioning in offices, malls, hotels and shops that use well-maintained filter systems should not increase the risk of spread of the virus, the guidance says. 

 

Are there ways to keep cool while doing a job that requires wearing personal protective equipment?

Yes. Drink cold liquids, including crushed-ice drinks if possible, before and during your time wearing protective equipment, to keep your body temperature as low as possible. When off work, avoid alcohol, which can be dehydrating.

 

If possible, spend time acclimatising to the heat by working in the protective gear for at least an hour a day for seven days.


While working, wear fewer clothing layers underneath your gear, and minimise exertion where possible. Or try wearing cooling devices, such as an ice vest, underneath your protective clothing. 

 

Is it safe to make use of outdoor spaces when it's hot?

People should take advantage of cool outdoor spaces and governments should install shade structures where possible and consider temporarily closing or limiting vehicle access to make certain streets pedestrian areas.


Keeping water fountains in operation - including in outdoor spaces such as parks - is important during hot periods, despite fear of spreading coronavirus, the guidance says.


As the virus has not been detected in water, fountains should be safe, though frequently-touched surfaces such as knobs, spigots and handles should be disinfected regularly. Consider bringing your own wipe to be sure. 

 

What can be done to help the vulnerable?

Cities and local communities should increase the use of telephone outreach programmes for regular check-ins with the most vulnerable during hot weather, the guidance says. 


Social safety net programmes could also be expanded. For example, energy subsidies could be provided to at-risk households to ensure they can afford home cooling measures.