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California public health official on staying safe during scorching heat wave

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

California is still in the midst of what may be the worst heat wave in the state's history. And that poses huge health risks. In the U.S., extreme heat is the most deadly weather-related disaster. Dr. Tomas Aragon is director of the California Department of Public Health. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TOMAS ARAGON: Hello.

SHAPIRO: What has been your top priority this week as heat in some parts of the state got up above 110 degrees?

ARAGON: Our top priority is really, from the health department perspective, is to get the word out for people to really be aware of the risk of elevated temperature. You know, with this heat being unprecedented, none of us in the state are acclimated to this high temperature, so it's really important for people to pay attention and to not take extra risk.

SHAPIRO: Often that message consists of - stay inside, get to air conditioning, don't be out in the sun. But California has a lot of agricultural workers, construction workers, people who can't stay indoors where it's cool. How do you make sure that everybody is safe in extreme heat like this?

ARAGON: Yeah. So Cal/OSHA does have very strict guidelines for employers. And, in fact, they have teams. They've been going out now for several days doing unannounced inspections to make sure that employers are following the law, making sure that workers have access to water, shade, frequent breaks and that they're able to take breaks where the temperature is more controlled.

SHAPIRO: California has, by far, the largest homeless population in the U.S. What can be done to protect people who don't have a cool place to go?

ARAGON: Yeah. So this is something that is incredibly important, and the local counties are really spending a lot of time in making sure that they're reaching the homeless population, making sure that they have access to shelters that are air conditioned. And then you have part of the population that doesn't want to go to a shelter - so making sure that they have access to resources, especially things like shade. I know Los Angeles - they were out giving popsicles, making sure that people had access to resources so that they can stay cooler.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any indication yet of whether this heat wave has caused any deaths?

ARAGON: One of the challenges with heat waves is that the number of people that actually end up being impacted goes beyond those that would be diagnosed with a heat-related illness. We tend to think of people developing heat exhaustion or heat stroke, and some of them will end up in the emergency room and be treated. The other thing that happens is that you have people who are already sick to begin with. They may be on medications. They have a chronic medical condition, and it exacerbates any underlying condition they already have. Somebody who has their heart failure has now got worse or they have issues with their lungs, and that's been exacerbated. So what we end up seeing is really an increase of people coming in for all different types of reasons.

SHAPIRO: A lot of people in California don't have air conditioning because they didn't need it before. But now that seems like a public health issue. What can the state do about that?

ARAGON: This is an incredibly important area, especially as we're moving forward. There's parts of the state, especially around the coastal regions, where both the buildings and the bodies are not acclimated to high temperatures. And you can have in a really short period of time - the temperature goes up. You can have a whole region along the coast who could really get into trouble. And so people have to start planning now, making sure your shades are down. If you don't have air conditioning, one of the things you can think about is, is there one room in the home or in the building, a common area, that you can cool down because sometimes it's not feasible to cool down a whole building or the whole home? But if you can get at one specific area that you can keep cool, if people go into that space for just a couple - few hours a day, it makes a big difference in bringing the body temperature down and keeping people safe.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Tomas Aragon is director of California's Department of Public Health. Thank you very much.

ARAGON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.