Arizona medical examiner's office at 106% capacity, brings in refrigeration units amid deadly heat wave

The spike in deaths in Maricopa County comes amid a record-breaking heat wave.

July 28, 2023, 8:52 AM

The medical examiner's office in Arizona's Maricopa County is over capacity and has had to bring in refrigeration units due to a spike in deaths this month amid a record-breaking heat wave, officials said.

It's the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 that the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office has needed extra coolers for the dead. As of Thursday, the office was at 106% of standard capacity, according to Phoenix ABC affiliate KNXV-TV.

A Maricopa County spokesperson confirmed to ABC News on Thursday evening that 10 individual refrigeration units had been sent to the medical examiner's office to increase capacity, should the need arise. The coolers are located near the office in downtown Phoenix but are not yet in use, according to the spokesperson.

"While we typically see a surge in intakes to the Office of the Medical Examiner (OME) in July, this year has been worse than prior years," the spokesperson said in a statement. " At Maricopa County, we do not wait for a challenging situation to become a crisis before we respond. That is what prudent planning is all about. As the County did during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have secured additional coolers to manage the increase in decedents. These coolers have not yet been utilized. Our staff at OME is working diligently to perform investigations and close cases."

The Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office stands on July 14, 2020, in Phoenix.
Ross D. Franklin/AP, FILE

The spokesperson noted that it was not immediately known how many of the latest deaths were heat-related because it takes time for the medical examiner's office to confirm and report the cause and manner of each death.

On Wednesday, the Maricopa County Department of Public Health released data showing that the county has had a total of 24 confirmed heat-associated deaths so far this year, with another 249 deaths under investigation.

Arizona's capital is currently on a record stretch of 28 consecutive days with temperatures at or above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Overnight temperatures in Phoenix did not drop below 90 degrees for a record 16 days in a row this month. The city also hit a daily temperature record of 119 degrees on Tuesday.

A jet takes flight from Sky Harbor International Airport as the sun sets over Phoenix, July 12, 2023.
Matt York/AP, FILE

The weather forecast for Friday shows extreme heat will continue to plague the southwestern United States, with temperatures expected to reach a high of 113 degrees in Phoenix. The heat is forecast to persist over the weekend, but by Sunday and Monday temperatures aren't expected to be quite as high as they have been in recent weeks.

The National Weather Service has issued coast-to-coast heat alerts that are in effect on Friday morning across 35 states from California to Maine.

The heat waves occurring in North America, Europe and China throughout this month would not have been possible without global warming, according to a rapid attribution analysis by World Weather Attribution, an academic collaboration that uses weather observations and climate models to calculate how climate change influences the intensity and likelihood of extreme weather events. In some regions, the sweltering temperatures have triggered wildfires as well as heat-related hospital admissions and deaths, the researchers said.

ABC News' Kenton Gewecke, Melissa Griffin, Julia Jacobo and Dan Peck contributed to this report.

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