Heat-related mortality amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic

Sousa P.M., Trigo R.M., Russo A., Geirinhas J.L., Rodrigues A., Silva S. and Torres A.
International journal of biometeorology, 66, pages 457–468. DOI: 10.1007/s00484-021-02192-z

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Excess mortality not directly related to the virus has been shown to have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, changes in heat-related mortality during the pandemic have not been addressed in detail. Here, we performed an observational study crossing daily mortality data collected in Portugal (SICO/DGS) with high-resolution temperature series (ERA5/ECMWF), characterizing their relation in the pre-pandemic, and how it aggravated during 2020. The combined result of COVID-19 and extreme temperatures caused the largest annual mortality burden in recent decades (~?12 000 excess deaths [~?11% above baseline]). COVID-19 caused the largest fraction of excess mortality during March to May (62%) and from October onwards (85%). During summer, its direct impact was residual, and deaths not reported as COVID-19 dominated excess mortality (553 versus 3 968). A prolonged hot spell led mortality to the upper tertile, reaching its peak in mid-July (+?45% deaths/day). The lethality ratio (+?14 deaths per cumulated ºC) was higher than that observed in recent heatwaves. We used a statistical model to estimate expected deaths due to cold/heat, indicating an amplification of at least 50% in heat-related deaths during 2020 compared to pre-pandemic years. Our findings suggest mortality during 2020 has been indirectly amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the disruption of healthcare systems and fear of population in attending healthcare facilities (expressed in emergency room admissions decreases). While lockdown measures and healthcare systems reorganization prevented deaths directly related to the virus, a significant burden due to other causes represents a strong secondary impact. This was particularly relevant during summer hot spells, when the lethality ratio reached magnitudes not experienced since the 2003 heatwaves. This severe amplification of heat-related mortality during 2020 stresses the need to resume normal healthcare services and public health awareness.