PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - Philadelphia and neighboring counties have declared a Code Blue in the face of these frigid temperatures.
The homeless population in Philadelphia is already vulnerable, but when the mercury barely reaches 20 degrees, the line between life and death is razor thin.
Beth Lewis with Project HOME says teams of trained professionals hit the streets to bring people in from the elements.
“During a Code Blue, the teams that are out, they know many of the people — they’ve built long-standing relationships with many of the people,” Lewis explained.
She says once they’re brought in from the cold, Project HOME staff members work with other agencies and shelters in the city to try to arrange long-term accommodations and access to other services.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter says when the city issues a code blue, it’s time to help get folks off the streets and into a shelter.
“Code Blue is obviously a very serious situation. We declare it based on weather conditions, not only temperature, but also wind and impact of wind chill. We don’t want anyone out sleeping certainly on the street, we never want anyone out sleeping on the streets, but certainly with weather like this, our average teams are out actively looking for people and trying to encourage them to come in,” Nutter said.
The Mayor’s spokesman Mark MacDonald says the city has the capacity to house just under 2,300 homeless people in shelters during Code Blue. That’s about 400 more than usual because they city ramps up its number during the dangerously cold weather.
MacDonald says between 1,300-1,400 individuals and 500 families have been identified as homeless by the city. He says the number of outreach teams to bring in those who may be sleeping on the streets has also been increased.
Usually, there are six teams of two going out each night. During Code Blue, that number increases to eight teams. MacDonald also says the teams have the power to commit people who refuse to come in out of the cold, and are at risk of hypothermia.
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These temperatures don’t stop many people from braving the bitter cold to make a living. While many are hibernating, others have to put on their thick socks, gloves, and hats to work outside in the blistering cold weather.
Mondre May, who was standing outside holding a sign on 3rd Street for five hours, said, “I just try to walk around a little bit and try not to worry about my feet getting cold. I try not to think about it.”
Adama, a doorman for the Omni Hotel in Old City, said he is lucky to be prepared for the brutal weather. “For the cold, we have new coats that we are wearing with gloves,” Adama said. He added that he avoids the icy temperatures whenever possible. “We only come out when it’s really needed.”
With temperatures like this, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. This uses up your body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. This can affect your brain, your ability to think and your ability to move well.
There are certain people more vulnerable to cold temperatures: elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating; babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; people who remain outdoors for long periods; the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc. and people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.
Of course, there are warning signs for extreme cold if you know how to recognize them. In adults the common symptoms are shivering, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness.
In infants there are added symptoms and it can happen very fast. These include bright red, cold skin and very low energy. If you come across someone in this situation, take their temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency; get medical attention immediately. If you can’t do this, get the victim into a warm room or shelter, remove wet clothing and if possible warm the center of the body first — chest, neck, head, and groin — using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
When people come across someone who is hypothermic, they often give them warm beverages. This can help increase the body temperature, but many believe alcohol will help. It will not. Alcohol actually makes people lose heat.
Reported By Kim Glovas, Medical Editor Dr. Brian McDonough, and Cherri Gregg, KYW Newsradio; Jericka Duncan, CBS 3.