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Heat prompts warning to stay cool, refrain from unnecessary exertion

Portland metro hospitals are already managing heavy demand
OHSU Hospital Emergency Department with ambulance pulling into parking lot.
An ambulence pulls into the entrance driveway for Oregon Health & Science University's emergency department on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

Portland-area hospitals continue to see a high demand for urgent hospital admissions and remain full, making it imperative for people to take sensible steps to avoid unnecessary visits to the emergency room for heat exhaustion and heat-related illness during this week’s hot weather, warn Oregon Health & Science University physicians.

At OHSU, the hospital’s emergency department is stocked with ice packs and cold saline. 

Like other hospitals in the region and across the country, the hospital is continuing to admit a high number of sick patients. Reasons include the usual seasonal increase in emergency care from summer activities, as well as acute and chronic health issues suddenly requiring ER and hospital care — in part due to delayed care over the past two years. This comes on top of health care staffing challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Physicians say it is critical for people to access cooling centers, practice water safety, avoid drugs or alcohol that can worsen heat-related illness, and drink plenty of water.

Temperatures in the region are expected to rise to near triple digits through Saturday, cooling only to the mid- to high-60s overnight.

Mary Tanski, M.D., M.B.A. (OHSU) against a brown background.
Mary Tanski, M.D. (OHSU)

“In heat like this, we see people in the emergency department who get into trouble trying to clean their yard or mow the lawn in the heat,” said Mary Tanski, M.D., chair of emergency medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine. “People overestimate their ability to get things done, and that’s really challenging for people when they are exposed to such high temperatures.”

Heat illness can be quite serious, especially for older adults, young children and people with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Prolonged exposure to heat can also affect anyone who does not have access to air conditioning.

  • Signs of heat exhaustion: Dizziness, weakness, heavy sweating, rapid weak pulse, nausea or vomiting, pale and clammy skin, muscle cramps and shallow breathing.
  • Signs of heat stroke: Throbbing headache, confusion, rapid strong pulse, seizures, red and hot skin, body temperature above 104 degrees and loss of consciousness.

Finding a cool place

Cooling centers are available throughout the Portland metro region. If you don’t have air conditioning, or you’re unable to stay cool, it’s important to find relief from prolonged heat.

In the Portland metro area, resources for cooling centers can be found at the following:

High demand for hospitals

With hospitals experiencing heavy demand, Portland-area health systems are working in close coordination with emergency medical services to deliver patients in need of emergency care to the closest available hospital. Cases are prioritized based on urgency, and wait times can be significant for those whose needs are less urgent.

People should check in with their primary care providers and reserve the emergency room for true emergencies.

“The need for acute hospital care is as high as we’ve ever seen,” Tanski said. “We’re working with emergency medical service providers and doing everything we can to get patients to the closest hospital, knowing all the hospitals are full.”

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