WASHINGTON — In Arizona, access to air conditioning can be a matter of life and death.
Last year, a record 283 people in Arizona died from heat-related causes, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
The heat could be even deadlier this summer, which experts predict will be warmer than normal. At the same time, people are spending more time at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic and have less access to libraries, shopping centers and other air conditioned public spaces.
The combination is especially dangerous in Arizona and other warm-weather states, said Patricia Solis, an expert in climate change and geography at Arizona State University.
“What happens when you can’t shelter in place because it’s too hot there?” she asked.
At-risk Arizonans may be reluctant to go to cooling centers out of fear of contracting the virus — even as temperatures climb into the triple digits. And air conditioning systems have been associated with spreading the virus, according to a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could amplify fears about cooled public places.
Rising unemployment threatens to make matters worse. People may turn off air conditioning units or set thermostats higher than they would otherwise because they can’t afford to pay cooling bills, experts said, which could exacerbate the danger to public health.
“It’s going to be a very tough summer,” said Margaret Wilder, a professor of geography at the University of Arizona. That’s especially true for older people, who are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 and who are increasingly isolated as a result of social distancing, she said.
Other vulnerable groups include low-income people, disabled people and very young children. People who live in mobile home parks, often built on asphalt and with scarce shade, are also at high risk, according to a column she and other heat and housing researchers recently wrote.
Lawmakers fight for Arizona’s ‘fair share’
To curb one public health crisis on top of another, Arizona lawmakers and advocates are fighting for help from the federal government.
“The summer heat is as deadly, if not more deadly, than the brutal cold in other parts of the country,” Arizona Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton, told Arizona Mirror.
He’s among those sounding the alarm about the need to help people stay cool this summer as they shelter in place.
In February, the Trump administration sought to eliminate funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the government’s main heating and cooling assistance program.
But then the pandemic struck, and President Donald Trump signed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package in March that authorized $900 million in new funding for the program. The majority of that money went to warm weather states, which receive less money under traditional funding allocations.
Arizona received more than $17 million, including nearly $800,000 for tribal communities.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, called the emergency funds a “step in the right direction,” but said more is needed to protect public health this summer.
Created in 1981, the federal assistance program originally focused on helping low-income people in colder regions of the country pay heating bills. The program has retained its emphasis on cold-weather states, even as the climate warms.
In 2017, states in New England and the upper Midwest got the most money per capita, while states in the South and West got the least, according to the Pew Research Center. That year, North Dakotans received $34 per capita while Arizonans got only $3 per capita — far below the national $10 per capita average.
Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego and other lawmakers signed a letter last month calling for an additional $4.3 billion for the energy aid program. That number was pared back to $1.5 billion for the program in a $3 trillion relief package that passed the House last week — legislation that is not expected to pass the U.S. Senate.
The vote split Arizona lawmakers down party lines, with four Democrats backing the package and four Republicans in opposition. The state’s other House lawmaker — Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick — didn’t cast a vote.
Despite partisan divisions over the package at large, Arizona lawmakers are nearly united in support of more funding for the energy assistance program.
Ten members of the state’s congressional delegation — six Democrats and four Republicans — sent a letter this month to House and Senate leaders asking them to provide more money and to change the program’s funding formula so Arizona gets its “fair share” of funds.
“While one advantaged state is capable of serving half of its LIHEAP-eligible households, Arizona continues to reach just four percent of its at-risk households,” the lawmakers wrote. “This means some of Arizona’s most vulnerable citizens will continue to be subjected to extreme weather conditions until funding is distributed fairly.”
Arizona GOP Rep. Andy Biggs, a staunch conservative who has opposed earlier federal COVID-19 relief packages, is the only member of the state’s delegation who didn’t sign the letter.
But more funding for the aid program — however robust — won’t fully address the need for cooling in Arizona’s increasingly hot summers, Wilder said.
The program caps eligibility at a certain income level. Funds are available only once every 12 months on a first-come first-serve basis, and applicants must be Arizona residents.
Fully addressing energy inequity in the long term requires a change in public thinking, Wilder said: “We need to not view adequate heating and cooling as a luxury but as a human right.”