Along with the extreme cold, the Polar Vortex also brought an increase in weather-related injuries to Corridor hospitals.
Hospital officials in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City reported higher than average cases of frostbite in their emergency departments Wednesday, a result of what the National Weather Service described as “life-threatening” cold temperatures.
“We basically had no (cases) up until this really bad cold snap,” said Dr. Ryan Sundermann, emergency department medical director for UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital. “Iowans in general know what to do and people are generally pretty smart, but they don’t know how to deal with this extreme cold.”
Temperatures Wednesday morning broke record lows locally, hitting 25 degrees below zero, and besting the record of 22 below set in 1951. Wind chills were expected to drop as low as 60 below zero into Thursday.
Frostbite, an injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues, can occur in less than five minutes on exposed skin in certain conditions, weather service and public health officials said.
“It sneaks up on people, too,” Sundermann said.
St. Luke’s Hospital emergency department “had five to six cases of frostbite” in the past two days, spokeswoman Sarah Corizzo said.
Sundermann added that three of those cases came in overnight Wednesday.
The emergency department at Mercy Medical Center recorded two cases of frostbite Tuesday and one additional case Wednesday night, spokeswoman Karen Vander Sanden said.
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While Mercy Iowa City reported no patients with frostbite, the emergency department at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics saw “a slight increase” in the number of exposure-related cases over the past day, which totaled to a handful of cases, UIHC spokesman Tom Moore said.
Officials at the UIHC emergency department “said that they feel that the actions that have been taken, including the cancellation of classes, offering options such as working from home and suspending mail delivery, all contributed to reducing the potential impact of the extremely cold weather,” Moore said in an email.
Classes at local school districts and the university were canceled Wednesday and a number of businesses stopped operations — including the U.S. Postal Service — due to the weather.
Sundermann agreed this likely helped prevent more cases.
St. Luke’s emergency department officials also had been concerned for the homeless population in Cedar Rapids, Sundermann said.
“Last night at 11:30, we weren’t even full in the department and we didn’t have anyone coming in seeking shelter,” he said. “We always make ourselves available to them, but shelters did a good job keeping everyone indoors.”
Wednesday’s extreme temperatures, however, are believed to have contributed to the death of 18-year-old Gerald Belz, a pre-medicine student at the University of Iowa.
Belz was found unresponsive before 3 a.m. Wednesday behind Halsey Hall on West Jefferson Street, a popular cut-through from the nearby Iowa Memorial Union to the residence halls a short distance away. He was transported to the hospital, where he died, authorities announced.
UI police said the investigation into Belz’s death is ongoing, but believed it to be weather related.
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Temperatures were expected to rise Friday up to 23 degrees, but a wind chill as low as minus 10 is anticipated by the National Weather Service. To prevent frostbite and hypothermia, Sundermann recommends individuals wear multiple layers of clothing outside.
He also said people should “pay attention to your body.” Go indoors if you’re shivering, and don’t push through pain in toes and fingers.
Gazette reporters Kat Russell and Molly Duffy contributed to this article.
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