Deaths, ER admissions spike in weeks following weather disasters

Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria aftermath — word "HELP" written in large letters on top of a dwelling
In wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the word "HELP" is written in huge letters on the roof of a dwelling.

March 12, 2024 – Climate change–driven weather disasters are having broad and lasting impacts on people’s health and on health care utilization—and these impacts are likely being undercounted, according to a new study.

The study, published February 29 in Nature Medicine, included several co-authors from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, including lead author Renee Salas, affiliated faculty at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) and an emergency department physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Other Harvard Chan co-authors included Laura Burke, Jessica Phelan, and E. John Orav.

To paint a more comprehensive picture of the human health impacts from severe weather such as hurricanes, floods, and intense storms, the researchers looked at Medicare records before and after weather disasters that resulted in more than $1 billion in damages from 2011 to 2016. They found that, six weeks after a storm, the death rate in counties with the most destruction was two to four times higher than that of counties that were hit less hard. They also found that emergency department admissions jumped for about two weeks following most major disasters.

“Based on experience that we’ve seen unfold in the U.S. and elsewhere, we see that there’s destruction and disruption to our ability to deliver the high-quality care we want to give patients in the weeks following the weather disasters,” said Salas in a February 29 NPR article.

The co-authors wrote that zeroing in on the true impacts of huge weather disasters is important to help guide health-related policy and preparedness. Salas told NPR, “Given that billion-dollar disasters have intensified and become much more frequent in the subsequent years, this is something we need to get a handle on.”

Read the NPR article: The human cost of climate-related disasters is acutely undercounted, new study says

Read a Mass General Brigham press release: Extreme Weather Events Tied to Increased Mortality and Emergency Department Activity

Photo: U.S. Department of Homeland Security