26 died from cold this year

Chicago's third-coldest winter has contributed to the deaths of 26 people so far, nearly 50 percent more fatalities than the entire season's average in recent years, according to numbers provided by the Cook County medical examiner's office.

Over the past 13 years, the average number of cold-related deaths was 18, according to the medical examiner, who measures "winter" according to the cold season's first and last recorded hypothermia-related deaths.

Still, despite the number of deaths this year, Cook County has had fewer fatalities than some experts expected, given the harsh temperatures. The tally also is lower than the death toll of some winters, such as the 2006-2007 season, in which 32 cold-related deaths were recorded by Feb. 2. The highest number of cold-related recorded deaths in the county since 2000 came in the winter of 2000-2001, the 21st coldest on record, which had 34 deaths by April 1.

During the past couple of particularly warm winters, however, deaths fell below the average to a total of 14 each.

According to separate data from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Cook County saw the highest number of cold-related deaths in the state. Slightly more than half of the county's cold-related deaths this year were in Chicago, according to the medical examiner's office. The most deadly bout of hypothermia and other cold-weather-related deaths in Cook came during the polar vortex of Jan. 5 to 7, when temperatures dropped to minus 16 and four deaths were attributed to the cold.

This winter's repeated, extended bouts of extreme cold have put city officials and emergency care workers on alert, prompting them to extend warming center and shelter hours, deploy vans at dusk and dawn to seek out homeless people and issue warnings about frostbite and hypothermia.

It is too soon to say how the season's cold-death tally will ultimately rank, as low temperatures are expected to continue at least through mid-March and the medical examiner's office is still working to determine the cause of some recent deaths.

However, medical professionals and city officials say they have not seen as many cold-related deaths or injuries this winter as they anticipated. For example, an emergency physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital said that he has not seen more ER visits this year.

"The amount of injuries we saw were less than we expected," said Dr. Rahul Khare, an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, who has worked as an emergency physician at the hospital for 10 years.

Aside from people using the emergency room as a warming center, several cases of falls on the ice and a couple of cases of frostbite, the University of Chicago Medical Center has also treated few cases directly attributed to the weather this season, according to spokeswoman Tiffani Washington.

Suzet McKinney, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Public Health Department, which ensures that the city's health centers and emergency facilities are prepared for a possible uptick in patients due to extreme weather, said hospitals experienced no severe overcrowding during this winter's cold spells.

In fact, ER visits markedly decreased, particularly during the cold snaps, which according to the city's Department of Family and Support Services fell Jan. 5 through 7, Jan. 27 to 28 and Feb. 10 and 11 this year.

"Interestingly enough, during the severe weather, they were definitely lower," Khare said. "People just don't want to get out."

Heightened awareness

Those who work closely with the homeless, elderly and other groups most at risk of death due to cold exposure theorized that among the reasons for the fewer than expected problems could be that along with extreme temperatures came heightened awareness and stepped-up efforts to protect vulnerable populations.

A mobile warming center bus was deployed for the first time this year, during the first polar vortex Jan. 5 to 7, according to Matt Smith, spokesman for the Department of Family and Support Services. The city's six warming centers and six regional senior centers extended their hours, and shelters were instructed to stay open 24 hours and not turn anyone away, Smith said.

"We've made it through one of the worst winters in history in relatively good shape because we all worked together," Smith said.

In her nearly two decades working for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Director of Policy Julie Dworkin said she cannot remember a time when services were changed so drastically due to extreme cold.

The fact that Chicago Public Schools canceled classes because of the cold not once but twice, Khare pointed out, made a statement: This winter's temperatures are dangerous.

"They even have names, right?" Khare said, "like 'Chiberia' and 'Polar Vortex' — almost like a hurricane."