Cold extracts human toll: more than 2 dozen dead in 8 states

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CHICAGO | The perilous cold and heavy snow that strangled the northern U.S. this week has retreated, but not before exacting a human toll: more than two dozen weather-related deaths in eight states and hundreds of injuries, including frostbite, broken bones, heart attacks and carbon monoxide poisoning.

FILE – In this Jan 30, 2019, file photo, a firefighter walks past an ice-encrusted home after an early morning house fire in St. Paul, Minn. The dangerous cold and heavy snowfall that hobbled the northern U.S. this week has retreated, but not before exacting a human toll: more than 20 deaths and hundreds of weather-related injuries including frostbite, broken bones, heart attacks and carbon monoxide poisoning. (Jean Pieri/Pioneer Press via AP, File)

In Illinois alone, hospitals reported more than 220 cases of frostbite and hypothermia since Tuesday, when the polar vortex caused temperatures to plunge to minus 30 or lower — with wind chills of minus 50 or worse in some areas.

Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis normally sees around 30 frostbite patients in an entire winter. It treated 28 in the past week, spokeswoman Christine Hill said Friday.

“I definitely saw more frostbite than I’ve ever seen in my entire career just in the last three days,” said Dr. Andrea Rowland-Fischer, an emergency department physician at Hennepin Healthcare.

Most of those patients, she said, had underlying problems that made it difficult for them to take care of themselves: the developmentally delayed, the mentally ill, the very young and the very old. They also included people with injuries related to drugs and alcohol — people who passed out or did not realize they were cold or injured.

“It’s heartbreaking when there are people who can’t take care of themselves and get exposed, just because they either escape from the care that they’re being given or because they’re not being supervised.”

Others got frostbite on their way to work after being exposed to the cold for a short time — including on their hands, feet, ears and face. That included people whose cars wouldn’t start or who got stuck outside for other reasons, as well as those who just didn’t think they could get frostbitten so quickly and went outside without gloves or other protective gear.

Several required “maximal treatment,” admission to the hospital’s burn unit for therapies that include drugs to restore circulation to try to avoid amputations. Some of them will probably still require amputations, a decision usually made by burn doctors four to 10 days after the injury.

Many people decided to stay home even when they were sick to avoid slippery roads and subzero temperatures. In western Michigan, a health care system’s online service saw a major spike this week.

More than 400 people over four days used Spectrum Health’s MedNow to see a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant about non-emergency issues, such as aches, rashes, cold and flu, said Joe Brennan, MedNow senior director. Most used an app on their phone. The usual four-day volume is 250.

“We had soreness-and-sickness calls from people who were shoveling two-and-a-half feet of snow,” Brennan said. “Instead of going to urgent care or an emergency department, they had an option to stay at home.”