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Cold snap, far from letting up, raises health concerns

Baltimore WeatherConservationExercise PhysiologyUnion Memorial HospitalMedStar Health

Baltimore will enter its third consecutive day below freezing Thursday, prompting health officials to warn vulnerable residents of deadly conditions, even as the region prepares for treacherous travel with light snow expected to fall early Thursday and Friday afternoon.

The streak of frigid, blustery weather has brought the coldest temperature in nearly two years here, and could become one of the longest periods below freezing in six years, according to National Weather Service data.

With 11 deaths linked to hypothermia even before the cold snap, this winter has nearly surpassed last year's mild season for cold weather-related deaths. Health officials urge residents, particularly the elderly and homeless, to avoid prolonged periods outdoors and to wear gloves, hats, scarves, boots and layers of light, loose-fitting clothing to stay warm, and they are making more resources available to prevent more deaths.

By mid-afternoon Wednesday, Baltimore's shelter at 620 Fallsway, which can handle as many as 335 men and women on "Code Blue" days, was full. Officials were directing the homeless to an overflow shelter.

Andre Quille, 53, said he typically stays in the downtown shelter. If the shelter is full, "you have to get into different hospitals," Quille said, adding that he has multiple sclerosis and uses a cane. "You go in there and tell them you want to be admitted for something."

Usually, he said, hospitals will discharge him by 5 a.m., but sometimes they will allow him to stay for a few days.

Demand for shelters isn't expected to let up until next week. If forecasts hold up, Baltimore could be in for four or five straight days with high temperatures of 31 degrees or colder. That would be the longest span since one that lasted six days starting Jan. 23, 2004, and it would match or surpass four-day stretches in January 2003, January 2005 and February 2007, according to the weather service.

Wednesday morning's low of 12 degrees at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport was the coldest there since Jan. 24, 2011, when the mercury dropped to 8 degrees.

Baltimore's longest stretch below freezing lasted 18 days in 1893, in the time before urban and suburban warming, said Chris Strong, warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service's Baltimore/Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va.

The region could awake to an inch or less of snow Thursday morning, with a fast-moving system known as a clipper passing through. An isolated band of slightly heavier snow was expected to stay south of the Baltimore area. A winter weather advisory was in effect from midnight through 9 a.m. Thursday for all of the Baltimore area except for Harford County.

Even light snow can be dangerous for motorists with temperatures as low as they have been, Strong said. The friction of tires on roadways melts the snow, but it quickly freezes over at temperatures around 20 degrees and colder, he said.

Friday afternoon and evening, forecasters are expecting another light snowfall, and again, though accumulation isn't expected to be significant, the timing could make for a slippery commute. The weather service is estimating a 60 percent chance of an inch or less of snowfall.

AccuWeather.com senior meteorologist Tom Kines called it more of a "nuisance-type storm," potentially bringing 1 to 2 inches, "maybe 3 if it really gets its act together."

The difficulty for forecasters is that two weather systems, one from the northwest and one from the southwest, are expected to converge over the area Friday, but it's unclear which could dominate. Snowfall would be more significant if the southern system is stronger, forecasters said, but it's also possible that the systems could bring no snow at all.

"It's possible once a system moves out of the mountains across western Pennsylvania and West Virginia on Friday that a lot of the snow doesn't make it," Kines said.

Regardless of snow, cold temperatures have proved deadly this winter even before the current cold snap. The 11 hypothermia-linked deaths were confirmed through Jan. 21. Hypothermia occurs when body temperature drops below 95 degrees, causing vital organs to shut off.

The death toll is nearing that of winter 2011-2012, the sixth-mildest winter on record in Baltimore, when hypothermia was a factor in 15 deaths. An average of about 39 hypothermia-related deaths have occurred over the past four winters, according to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Local government agencies are working to prevent more deaths. In Baltimore, where two hypothermia-related deaths have been confirmed this winter, city officials declared a "Code Blue" alert Tuesday through Sunday, making additional resources available for the homeless. City senior centers are equipped to serve emergency meals and staff are prepared to dispatch a taxi to bring people in need of warmth to a center, said Arnold Eppel, director of the city's aging and retirement education services.

The elderly tend to be among those particularly vulnerable to cold, but area aging office officials contacted said they had seen no real surge in calls for help so far during the cold snap.

In Anne Arundel County, senior centers have been declared open to residents of any age who need a place to warm up during the centers' regular business hours, said spokeswoman Karla Schaffer. The centers also offer hot lunches. Representatives of the county's senior care program also are telephoning vulnerable residents to make sure they're all right, Schaffer said.

Harford County officials are advising the homeless and others seeking warmth to visit public libraries and malls.

Area hospitals have seen a smattering of cold-related cases in their emergency rooms the past couple of days. Most weren't that serious, with slurred speech and other symptoms of hypothermia, which can affect one's ability to think or move.

Union Memorial admitted one man, with a core body temperature of 89 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the normal 98.6 degrees. The man, whose name was not released, was in serious condition Wednesday in the intensive care unit, according to Debra Schindler, spokeswoman for MedStar Health, which operates Union and three other area hospitals.

Those seeking to warm their homes can also put themselves into dangerous situations, said a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman, Chief Kevin Cartwright.

"The colder it gets outside, people turn their thermostats up, and some people who are economically challenged — or not — use space heaters to keep themselves comfortable in their homes," he said. "And some of these people use space heaters very close to easily combustible materials."

Cartwright warned that materials such as bedspreads or curtains can ignite from heat even if the heater placed near them doesn't have an open flame. Appliances that emit carbon monoxide should never be used in the home, he added. Kerosene heaters are illegal in Baltimore and can be confiscated.

Temperatures are forecast to meet or rise above freezing Saturday or Sunday, but are still expected to top out in the lower 30s until Monday, when forecasters expect a high around 40, according to the weather service.

Baltimore Sun reporters Carrie Wells, Timothy B. Wheeler and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

sdance@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Baltimore WeatherConservationExercise PhysiologyUnion Memorial HospitalMedStar Health
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