All Summer Long: Heat Waves and COVID-19

Extreme heat is a growing hazard to public health, causing greater mortality than other hazards like floods, tornadoes and hurricanes in the United States. Yet in 2020, the risks of extreme heat may be magnified even more by the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Peter Howe, associate professor in Utah State University's Environment and Society Department is part of a team of scientists awarded an NSF-RAPID grant to assess how the combination of summer heat and COVID-19 affect vulnerable populations in the United States. The study “Responding to extreme heat in the time of coronavirus” will combine results of large-scale surveys with statistical models to examine how weather patterns, COVID-19 outbreaks and demographic characteristics affect people’s risk perception and mitigation behaviors. The team will conduct a series of national surveys focused on self-reported symptoms and potential household coping mechanisms, and then link the results to the perceptions of risks perceived effectiveness of protective actions. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven difficult for public health agencies to manage. Understanding who is at risk, how to mitigate risk and, importantly, how to move forward, is not well understood. The heat of summer may add another layer to the series of factors that influence transmission and response to the virus. People’s perception of their risk of being infected and their perception of heat stress further complicates public health approaches to minimizing effects of this disease. 

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“We know that how people perceive different risks can shape how they respond, but Americans this summer are facing a combination of serious risks in COVID and extreme heat,” Howe said. “This project will help us understand how these multiple intersecting hazards shape people’s experiences.” 

Results of these surveys will be posted on a web-based mapping tool showing perceived risks and protective behaviors throughout the country. The study combines theory and methods from geography and behavioral sciences to understand the behavior of the virus and the interaction of environmental conditions and human response. Results of the team’s analyses will help public health officials develop better strategies to protect at-risk populations. 

The collaborative project brings together researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Colorado and Utah State University to help scientists understand the links among local weather patterns, localized patterns of virus transmission and the perceptions and behavior of individuals in counties across the nation. 

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