Blog Post

'Polar vortex' sends frost-bitten Americans to area hospitals

January 7, 2014

    Juliette Mullin, Editor

    The "polar vortex" bore down on millions of Americans yesterday, bringing with it frigid temperatures and blanketing much of the Midwest in snow.

    In New York on Tuesday morning, city dwellers woke to a wind chill temperature of 14 below zero—a 69-point drop from the night before. In parts of the Midwest, temperatures dipped as low as 40 below zero.

    Overall, wind chill advisories and warnings have been declared in 32 states from Montana to Florida.

    "It's a matter of life and death," says Phil Kwiatkowski, president of Pacific Garden Mission, a Chicago homeless shelter.

    The National Weather Service's map, pasted below, charts how temperatures plunged overnight. (And in Forbes: The Advisory Board's Dan Diamond and Graham McLaughlin discuss how to help the homeless through the cold snap.)

    The alarming weather put hospitals from Chicago to Atlanta on high alert.

    "When you are responsible for the care of patients," said Temple University Hospital President and CEO John Kastanis, "You have to be ready for the worst possible situation at all times."

    Kastanis said his Philadelphia-based hospital implemented the first phase of its emergency preparedness plan as temperatures began to fall last week.

    Members ask: How can our hospital prepare for disasters?

    In the Twin Cities, where temperatures dropped as low as 23 below zero, Regions Hospital had treated a "record-breaking" eight patients for hypothermia and 14 for frostbite as of early Monday evening. At UW Health in Madison, Wis., about half a dozen patients were treated for frostbite, while nearby Meriter also reported a handful of cases.

    For emergency responders, the cold has created a serious obstacle in efforts to get injured patients to area hospitals. "Days like this, you dress a little bit warmer, but the problem is you cannot dress too warm because we are in and out all the time," says Dick Carpenter, an Allina paramedic.

    Several deaths have already been attributed to the storm, although most of them have been traffic related. At least three men in Chicago have died from apparent exertion while shoveling snow.

    Stay safe. Before going outside, check out these doctors' tips for surviving the record-breaking cold weather.

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