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Public Health Impact of a Snow Disaster

The severe blizzard that struck Colorado on December 24 and 25, 1982, has raised questions about the public health impact of a snow disaster. Epidemiologic studies of a similar storm in New England in February 1978 may help officials facing similar conditions (1-4).

Major findings of the 1978 studies follow: 1) Although total mortality did not increase significantly during the blizzard in eastern Massachusetts, a third (27) of all deaths were classed as storm related. Eight persons stranded in cars died, five from carbon monoxide intoxication. 2) Total mortality and mortality from ischemic heart disease increased significantly in Rhode Island. 3) The number of emergency room visits declined 64% in Rhode Island and 56% in eastern Massachusetts during the blizzard but returned to normal in a few days. 4) Hospitals in Massachusetts had supply problems because delays in discharging patients raised occupancy rates to capacity. 5) No disease outbreaks and no water or sanitation hazards could be verified in eastern Massachusetts although seven were reported.

Based on this and other information, officials should consider the following recommendations during blizzards: 1) Early in the storm, warn against non-essential driving. 2) Announce publicly that persons who must drive should have extra clothes and food with them and remain in their vehicle if stranded. Advise extreme caution if the heating system is used, even for short periods, while the vehicle is stopped. Exhaust systems may become blocked with snow, and ventilation adequacy is hard to determine. 3) Establish a rumor clearinghouse to investigate reported disease outbreaks and environmental health hazards. 4) Rapidly investigate storm-related deaths to dispel rumors and gain data. 5) Advise hospitals that anticipate overcrowding and supply shortages to discharge and transport patients home early, using emergency vehicles if necessary. Reported by Field Svcs Div, Epidemiology Program Office, Special Studies Br, Chronic Diseases Div, Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

References

  1. Glass RI, O'Hare P, Conrad JL. Health consequences of the snow disaster in Massachusetts, February 6, 1978. Am J Public Health 1979; 69:1047-49.

  2. Faich G. Health impact of the 1978 blizzard. Rhode Island Disease Bulletin 1978;15:4.

  3. Faich G, Rose R. Blizzard morbidity and mortality: Rhode Island, 1978. Am J Public Health 1979;69:1050-2.

  4. Glass RI, Zack MM. Increase in deaths from ischaemic heart disease after blizzards. Lancet 1979;1:485-7.

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