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Arizona COVID-19 deaths were way down, heat-related deaths spiked in 2023

At the end of last year, a look at the numbers of Arizonans who died showed that COVID-19 was still claiming many lives. This year, it’s way down on the list, which is topped, once again, by heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory illness and stroke. But, the area where we saw the biggest jump in deaths — was due to heat. 

The Show spoke with Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, more about it.

Interview highlights

Were you surprised by any of these trends?

WILL HUMBLE: Well, I don't know that the increase in heat-related deaths really surprised me that much. I mean, it kind of makes sense when you look at the numbers for homelessness in Arizona and the problems with affordable housing that's putting people out into the street. Combine that with the July that we had. We had a just a continuing big increase in heat-related deaths. And if you look at 2022, heat-related deaths wasn't even in the top 20. This year, it's No. 10. So, a big increase. Part of that's homelessness. It's a combination really of homelessness and the extreme temperatures that we had that were unusually high, especially the low temperatures at night.

The other biggest shift when you look at these breakdowns is the big drop we saw in deaths related to COVID-19, which makes sense as well.

HUMBLE: Yeah. Right. So if you look, if you go back to 2020, 2021 Arizona was the only state where to COVID-19 was the No. 1 leading cause of death — even more than heart disease and cancer in 2020. That dropped a little bit in 2022. So that it was the fourth-leading cause of death. This year, 2023, so far it's way down the list at No. 13. So big drop in the death from COVID-19, but a big increase in the death from heat-related illnesses.

So much of what we talk about when we talk about deaths in the news is related to the opioid epidemic, the fentanyl crisis. How big of a chunk of the picture are those right now?

HUMBLE: It's a big chunk. So the top two are, will always probably be — unless we have another pandemic — heart disease and cancer. But the third category is what's called accidents. And initially you think, well, accidents means car crashes. Well, it's accidental poisonings is what dominates that category, and it's the third-leading cause of death in 2022. Right now, it's classified as like fifth in 2023. But that's going to go up because the toxicology reports, it takes so long to finish, they can't establish the cause of death until that blood work comes back.

We hear a lot about suicides in the news and about the rise in suicides, particularly among certain populations. This was lower down the list this year. How does this compare to recent years?

HUMBLE: It's about the same as as recent years in terms of the the causes of death. If you look inside that data, demographically, it really is dominated by men over 70 that use a firearm as the method to end their life. So that's demographics. If you look at where are the numbers of in suicides, it's men over 70. Of course, there's suicides across the board of all the age groups and genders. But that's the, that's the biggest chunk. It's about the same as last year.

Let's talk for a few more minutes about heat-related deaths. We know that it was hotter. But we also know that there's a housing crisis and more people are on the street and living on the street. Do we know, though, though much comorbidities play into this — things like drug use, mental illness, disability. How are those categorized?

HUMBLE: So when you look at a death certificate, it'll say heat-related death, there might be two to three different causes. So in other words, when you're making the final determination ... it's about like what's the No. 1 leading cause of death. So for a heat death, most likely there's something else going on as well. Drugs is a big part, and Maricopa County did a a survey that found methamphetamine especially, but also fentanyl, are big co-factors for people who die from heat-related illnesses. But there's the dominant reason of course is that they're outside in the summer.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.