How to Stay Safe During Extreme Heat In the Time of COVID
Extreme heat is striking the MAPC region this summer and creating challenges as communities try to stay cool. Not only can the heat be deadly, but also it disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color burdened with many other inequities. This summer is particularly challenging as COVID-19 interferes with the heat mitigation work communities have been doing for years and limits the cooling strategies available to municipalities. Meanwhile, 2020 marks the hottest summer globally with record breaking heat in Metro Boston. Despite these challenges, communities and residents that proactively prepare for extreme heat can position themselves to keep cool safely.
MAPC has researched and worked with local, state, and national organizations to build a consolidated Extreme Heat Resources webpage, which outlines cooling strategies for communities, resources for residents, resources for municipalities, and emergency tips. This resources page debuted in July 2020 and is built to address greater Boston’s current heat challenges.
MAPC’s Climate Vulnerability Assessment and COVID-19
As part of MAPC’s MetroCommon x 2050 initiative, MAPC conducted an analysis of climate vulnerability that shows which neighborhoods in Metro Boston are more vulnerable to climate hazards than others. MAPC Deputy Director, Rebecca Davis, referenced this data when she recently pointed out in the Boston Globe that “the same communities that have been most impacted by the COVID pandemic are the communities that have the most vulnerability and exposure to heat.”
Extreme heat resources
Whether you are a resident or a community-based organization looking for help keeping cool this summer, the programs below can be extremely valuable.
For general assistance, community action agencies can supply information about utility bill assistance and free home energy improvements for low-income households. Residents of Boston, Brookline, Newton and the Mystic Valley cities and towns of Malden, Medford, Everett, Melrose, Stoneham, Winchester and Woburn can seek guidance from the Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), while others can find their local community action agency through MASSCAP, the Massachusetts Association for Community Action.
Throughout Greater Boston, Eversource and National Grid, through the Mass Save program, provide incentives to their customers for energy efficiency upgrades and appliances including air conditioners. Mass Save has information about their programs in ten languages and offers programs for low-income eligible residents. These programs include AC and dehumidifier swap-outs and air conditioner rebate programs. Eversource offers income-eligible utility bill forgiveness and income-eligible discounted electricity rates. Meanwhile, National Grid offers utility bill forgiveness and payment assistance alongside a reduced electricity rates program.
Finally, the Boston Center for Independent Living offers help for those who identify as a person with disability to get low-cost air conditioning installed in their home.
General COVID-Safe Cooling Strategies
Beyond specific cooling strategies, staff from community-based organizations recommend that municipalities focus on three pillars of strategy for battling extreme heat: indoor and in-home cooling, outdoor and outside of home cooling, and communication.
For indoor and inside of the home cooling, municipalities can distribute cooling care kits, fans, air conditioning units, and wearable cooling devices, as well as leverage COVID-19 safe isolation or quarantine hotel, motel, or dormitory sites. Cooling care kits can include key information on heat illness and wearable devices that may work without power. COVID-19 safe hotel and motel sites may provide sleeping accommodations to people without access to in-home cooling.
As municipalities prepare to help residents with outdoor and outside of the home cooling, municipalities can consider deploying temporary movable shade and misting equipment, implementing physical distancing measures at outdoor public spaces, and adapting cooling centers to reduce the risk of COVID-19. Temporary shading and misting can be particularly effective in shared outdoor spaces near affordable and public housing sites. Enforcement of physical distancing in outdoor spaces may provide an employment opportunity, including for youth.
Equally as important as the tips above, municipalities must effectively communicate their initiatives by advertising and communicating low-cost, low-tech indoor cooling options, such as closing windows and blinds during the day and wetting clothing, and encouraging mutual aid, check-ins, and information sharing. Communications are most effective when shared through a variety of media, such as videos, flyers, and word of mouth, and should be produced in multiple languages whenever possible.
Tips for Staying Safe in High Heat
While the tips above outline strategies to prevent and respond to extreme heat, it is critical to understand the warning signs and symptoms of heat illness. The CDC provides a list of warning signs and symptoms of heat illness and recommended first steps. A summary of the symptoms and steps can be found on MAPC’s Extreme Heat Resources page.