How to Keep US South Safe from COVID-19 and Scorching Heat, Even as Some States Ignore Pandemic Dangers

April 28, 2020 | 3:15 pm
Glenn Beltz/flickr
Rachel Licker
Principal Climate Scientist

A massive, unseasonable heatwave is forecast to hit much of the Southern United States this week. Many of the states that are forecast to be hit are also places whose economies are either already partially reopening or whose orders are set to expire on April 30. Will it be made clear to people in these states that it is still far safer to seek shelter from both COVID-19 and the heat in the air conditioning at home rather than in public places? Where in-home AC is unavailable, will options be put in place for residents to safely seek cooling?


Map of daily maximum heat index, or “feels like” temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit forecast by the National Weather Service for the contiguous US on Monday, May 4.

Southern Texas is set to be particularly hard hit

Of the many alarming forecasts, parts of southern Texas, including Corpus Christi and Brownsville are likely to experience heat index, or “feels like” temperatures, above 100°F starting on May 4 and could potentially experience values that exceed 110°F. In early May.

Temperatures in communities across the state are similarly forecast to be brutally hot. At the same time, Governor Abbott plans to begin reopening the state on May 1, allowing many businesses to reopen, including retail stores, malls, and movie theaters. These are just the sorts of places that people typically crowd in to cool down, and where the potential for virus transmission could be high.

Income loss + COVID-19 + Heat + No electricity shut-off moratorium = Bad news

Some of the states that are forecast to be affected by this heat do not have electricity shutoff moratoria, creating unnecessary burdens for low-income individuals to be able to safely stay at home during heatwaves. Poverty cuts across those that are especially vulnerable both to COVID-19 and to extreme heat, including the elderly and those with pre-existing physical and mental health conditions, underscoring the need to protect people who are at higher risks from these compounding threats.

As my colleagues and I pointed out in a Twitter thread last week, job losses and furloughs are making it harder for many U.S. residents to pay their utility bills. At the same time, with the need for social distancing persisting into the foreseeable future, it is a public health imperative that states across the country implement electricity shut-off moratoria and that Congress include a national moratorium on all utility shut-offs in the next stimulus bill.

Climate change is worsening extreme heat days in the US

The stage upon which this nightmarish situation has been set is that climate change is forecast to make these kinds of dangerous extreme heat days far more common. Around the world, the temperatures we live among have been increasing for decades as a result of humans burning fossil fuels, and as a result, more heat-trapping gases getting into our atmosphere. This increase in our average temperatures has caused many days that may have been hot to become dangerously hot, and even deadly.

Looking to the future, in UCS’s Killer Heat report UCS’s Killer Heat report, we found that without global action to reduce greenhouse gases, the number of days with heat index values above 105°F would more than quadruple across the US. The picture is even starker towards the end of the century–the number of such days would increase eight-fold.

We did report many reasons for hope and swift action, too, including that half of those 105°F days could be avoided if we meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global average temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

To keep people safe, the ability to stay at home in the AC is essential

In the near-term, it is critical that people understand that while businesses and public spaces like beaches may be reopening in some places, the safest place they can be to escape COVID-19 and the heat is, if possible, in their air-conditioned home. For those individuals who cannot access air conditioning at home, leaders in these states and communities need to have emergency plans that take account of both of these stressors, that provide COVID-19-safe cooling options, and that are communicated quickly and broadly to vulnerable residents . Federal, state, and local leaders also need to make sure that, for those struggling to keep their homes cool, no one’s power is turned off during these extreme heat days.

In the long-term, we need our policies on all fronts–from our pandemic responses to our climate policies–to be firmly rooted in science. Otherwise we will be dragged further away from safe ground.