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HHS launches tool to help combat extreme heat, protect vulnerable communities

The Heat and Health Index is a new tool that provides heat-health data at the ZIP code level

By Sarah Roebuck

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) introduced a new tool designed to assist communities in preparing for extreme heat and preventing heat-related illnesses, with a particular focus on protecting those most vulnerable.

The Heat and Health Index (HHI) is the first national tool to provide heat-health data at the ZIP code level, according to HHS. It helps officials identify vulnerable communities, ensuring targeted outreach and medical aid, and guiding investments in community resilience.

Heat is the deadliest weather-related hazard, with the CDC estimating at least 1,220 heat-related deaths annually in the U.S. The HHI is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s ongoing efforts to equip communities with the resources needed to stay safe from the worsening impacts of climate change, including extreme heat.

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The HHI integrates historical temperature data, EMS records of heat-related emergencies from the past 3 years, and community characteristics, such as health conditions, socio-demographic details and environmental features. This information generates a heat and health index ranking by ZIP code, enabling strategic, data-driven decision-making, according to HHS.

“Heat can pose a threat to our health, but with the right tools, we can protect our communities,” said Dr. Mandy K. Cohen, CDC director. “CDC’s new Heat and Health Index combines important data on heat and risk factors in the community to help local officials prepare for and respond to the health impacts of heat.”

The latest National Climate Assessment shows that climate change is causing dangerous heat waves. Pre-existing health conditions like asthma or diabetes worsen heat exposure outcomes, the HHS said. Factors such as poverty, age, pregnancy, vehicle access and tree canopy cover also affect heat vulnerability. Developing tools like the HHI helps address this growing threat to public health and communities, the HHS said.

The new tool expands on existing HHS heat tools, providing a more comprehensive view of communities most at risk of heat-related health impacts. It complements CDC’s latest clinical guidance for doctors and providers. While the existing EMS HeatTracker and the CDC Heat and Health Tracker identify heat-related illnesses at the county and regional levels, respectively, the HHI enhances these tools by enabling proactive planning and community protection before extreme heat events occur, HHS said.