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COVID-19 Pandemic Keeps Cooling Center Closed Despite Rising Temperatures

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Not even officially summer, but temperatures are already breaking record, and that presents health officials with a tough choice to protect people from heat or from COVID-19. From member station WXXI, Brett Dahlberg reports.

BRETT DAHLBERG, BYLINE: Aaron McCullough's at a playground in a leafy residential neighborhood of Rochester with his 3-year-old daughter, Ariana.

AARON MCCULLOUGH: She loves the slide. That's her favorite thing. Is it hot?

DAHLBERG: It is hot. It's 92 degrees right now. Sweat's dripping off McCullough's face. They didn't actually come here for the slide. They're here because on hot days, this playground usually has a spray park where kids and their families can cool down. But there's no water in sight today.

MCCULLOUGH: I kind of am disappointed because it's 92 degrees out. I was hoping that one of these water parks could open up and at least spray a little bit of water on us.

DAHLBERG: None of Rochester's spray parks are open today. Neither are the city's air-conditioned cooling centers. City spokesperson Justin Roj says that's because opening the sites would invite people to gather and that would spread the novel coronavirus.

JUSTIN ROJ: It's straight up the number of people, right? Gathering in close proximity and engaged in physically strenuous behavior, like running around the spray park - it appears to be a likely possibility for transmission. But when temperatures get this high, there's a good chance that the same people who are most at risk from COVID-19 will also be at risk from the heat.

ANDREA MIGLANI: So our elderly populations, our immunocompromised patients.

MCCULLOUGH: Dr. Andrea Miglani is the medical director for the emergency department at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.

MIGLANI: We will definitely start to see patients that come in with heat-related illness.

DAHLBERG: Miglani says the city is right. Protecting people from the heat will put them at risk from COVID-19. She says striking the right balance between the two is really hard.

MIGLANI: I'm really very happy that it's not my decision to make because it's an incredibly complicated and difficult one.

DAHLBERG: It's a dilemma that local governments across the country are grappling with. The federal Centers for Disease Control says hundreds of people die of heat-related causes each year in the U.S. Kristie Ebi says situations that force governments to balance the merits of keeping people at home versus gathering them in cooling centers are going to get more common as climate change progresses. Ebi's an expert on climate and health at the University of Washington.

KRISTIE EBI: The extreme temperatures we're seeing in heatwaves in some locations are now much higher than it's ever been experienced.

DAHLBERG: In Los Angeles, officials opened cooling centers when temperatures spiked. But because of the pandemic, they required fever checks, and they limited the number of people who could be inside at one time. Ebi says that might offer an example of how to cool off the people most vulnerable to heat-related health problems without drastically increasing the risk of COVID-19. But she says there's no hard and fast rule for when and how to open cooling centers. Ebi says those decisions have to be made locally.

EBI: That's where the expertise is. That's where the people are who can say in my community, the most vulnerable are these groups of people. And - I don't know - they like to go to the bingo hall. And there's air conditioning in the bingo hall. It's big enough. We can spread everybody out and go play bingo this afternoon.

DAHLBERG: In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is now taking that tack, too. He says he's leaving the decision about opening pools and playgrounds up to local authorities. Ebi says governors and local officials around the country will need to keep adjusting the rules as the pandemic progresses this summer. For NPR News, I'm Brett Dahlberg in Rochester, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.