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By ERIKA DE LOS REYES and XAVIER ALVAREZ | STAFF WRITERS
A man walks shirtless through a parking lot as excessive heat consumes South Texas on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Healthcare and emergency agencies in the Hidalgo County area continue warning residents that as temperatures rise to nearly unbearable conditions, so do the risks of heat-related illness and even death if the proper precautions aren’t taken.

Just Wednesday, the National Weather Service in Brownsville reported “life-threatening heat” with heat index values reaching as high as 122 degrees, prompting advisories and warnings — a common occurrence thus far this summer, and it doesn’t look like that’s changing anytime soon.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an average of 702 heat-related deaths every year as well as 67,512 emergency department visits, and 9,235 people hospitalized.

There is some good news, for now, according Dr. Felipe Gutierrez, the urgent care medical director for DHR Health. Gutierrez said that as of now he has not seen an uptick in heat-related cases at DHR’s urgent care.

A construction worker’s face is covered as excessive heat consumes South Texas on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

However, Gutierrez explained that he has noticed a rise in cases at the emergency department of the Starr County Memorial Hospital, where he also works.

In order to prevent heat-related injuries or illnesses, Gutierrez is reminding residents of the importance of taking the proper precautions.

“One of the most important things is to stay well hydrated,” Gutierrez said. “If you’re going to be outdoors make sure to take frequent breaks from what you’re doing and stay in shaded areas.”

According to Gutierrez, residents should look for signs of heat exhaustion, such as excessive sweating, while exposed for long periods of time to heat.

Heat stroke on the other hand can occur “when you’ve exhausted pretty much most of the water in your body,” he explained, adding that at this point the body will no longer be able to produce sweat and one will begin to feel confused.

“Confusion is already one of the later symptoms, so if you’ve reached that it’s time to get seen in the emergency department,” Gutierrez said.

A store worker collects shopping carts in a parking lot as he covers his face as excessive heat consumes South Texas on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

South Texas Health System identifies other signs and symptoms of heat-related illness including high body temperatures, fast or a strong pulse, muscle cramps or spasms, headaches, dizziness, nausea or even losing consciousness.

“Our body tells us whenever we’re thirsty, so it is important to obey our body and drink water,” Gutierrez said, adding that it’s best to avoid sugary drinks which can cause more urination and increase dehydration.

Other ways to prevent heat-related illnesses include taking cool showers or baths to regulate body temperatures, limiting the use of heat-producing appliances and also staying informed of local news for health and safety updates, STHS said in a news release Friday.

Gutierrez further stressed checking on certain vulnerable populations, mainly the very young and the elderly.

“The ones that struggle the most, and who the signs of heat exhaustion aren’t very visible, are children and the elderly,” Gutierrez said. “It’s good to check up on these individuals frequently.”

He also added that if one does not have air conditioning or a fan indoors temperatures can reach extreme heights as well.

In Alton, police have implemented a program designed to do exactly what Gutierrez is suggesting.

“We have our ‘Are You Okay’ program where we call on our elderly community and check on them weekly,” Alton police Chief Jonathan Flores said. “Those are all just measures that we have in place to ensure that our community is safe.”

A construction work covers his head from the sun as excessive heat consumes South Texas on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Flores said there’s more the police department is doing to keep the community safe and well-informed of heat-related illness and is reminding residents to not leave children or pets unattended.

“We’re also asking the public if they know of people that don’t have electricity, that are struggling, have an illness or something like that, they see somebody struggling with heat-related illness to — when in doubt — just call us and we’ll send out PD and FD to do a welfare check on them.”

Not only is Flores looking out for residents but he explained that his department is also advising both their officers and the community to carry extra water with them if they plan to be outdoors.

“Our patrolmen here at the police department, we’re advising them to hydrate,” Flores said. “They do have summer uniforms that they can utilize and give them the option to wear a different altered uniform that we have for them, you know it’s lighter colored. They can also wear shorts with that uniform.”

The Weslaco Fire Department is also implementing similar protocols for their staff as temperatures continue to rise.

According to Weslaco Fire Chief Antonio Lopez, every fire station works as a team in order to limit the amount of time in the field.

“Because of the time frame and the heat, a firefighter is not going to be able to work more than a 15- to 20-minute burst at a time without having to take a break,” Lopez said. “So now on our side if we have a working structure fire … we are going to request mutual aid initially right off the bat to help us with that second and third wave of operation … so we don’t run the crews to the ground.”

Lopez added that most outdoor activities are completed in the morning to reduce the amount of heat exposure the crews receive.

The fire chief further explained that although there’s no current data at his department that suggests an uptick in heat exhaustion or heat stroke calls, many reports don’t start off that way and believed that the Rio Grande Valley has likely experienced more issues with heat-related illness as a result of the recent high temperatures due to the area’s population struggling from certain medical conditions which extreme heat can worsen.

“Yes, everybody is seeing an increase of those heat-related injuries that is going to exacerbate a medical condition that the patient has,” Lopez said.

Cpt. David Friedlien of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office said that although his agency also hasn’t seen a hard uptick of heat-related calls, there was one case that involved the death of a person not authorized to be in the country which was determined to be heat-related.

“We remind our deputies obviously to stay hydrated and also the deputies are carrying water containers in case we notice someone is dehydrated or heat related illness,” Friedlien said.