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Houston Doctor Notes Spike Of Carbon Monoxide Poisonings During Texas Winter Blast


Nearly 3 million homes and businesses are still without power in Texas. That's the result of rolling blackouts and power plants crippled by the cold and ice. All of this has left Texans to find other ways to get warm, like barbecues and generators. And that has led to a surge in carbon monoxide poisonings, including a hundred cases at Memorial Hermann's emergency rooms in the Houston area. Dr. Samuel Prater is an emergency physician there, and he joins us now.


SAMUEL PRATER: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, just give us a snapshot of what you've been seeing in the last couple of days.

PRATER: Yeah. So carbon monoxide poisoning - we saw - on Monday night, we saw almost 60 individuals, and then on Tuesday night, we saw almost 40 individuals. This is a public health disaster. There's no way around this. And so anything we can do to get the word out - I've been trying to get on TV and stuff like that, but unfortunately, the folks who need to hear it don't have access to power, so they're not going to hear it. So I'm really excited that we're trying to do this on radio now.

SHAPIRO: Have there been any deaths, if I may ask?

PRATER: Yeah, there have been a handful of deaths. Most of those patients actually weren't transported to us. They were called in the field. But there was a very sick child who is still in our ICU, so more to hear on that one.

SHAPIRO: And explain why people are winding up in the emergency room with carbon monoxide poisoning in such large numbers.

PRATER: This is an unprecedented winter event, so desperate times call for desperate measures. These are folks with the best of intentions who are just feeling desperate and trying to get themselves warm - more importantly, trying to get their children warm - and resorting to unusual means where they'll bring in a barbecue pit from outside, use their stovetop or use a campfire grill; anything they can do to try to get warm. And through all these mechanisms, we're seeing folks poisoned with - it's a silent gas. You can't see it. You can't smell it. You don't know that you're getting poisoned until you start to feel sick.

SHAPIRO: You say start to feel sick. What are some of the symptoms?

PRATER: Yeah. So symptoms are mild headache, maybe a little bit of nausea, feeling weakness and some fatigue, maybe even some muscle aches. You might start to feel a little short of breath. But then as the levels of carbon monoxide in your bloodstream elevate, then your symptoms become more severe, and you start to have significant vomiting. Folks may even lose consciousness and then even present to coma.

SHAPIRO: I understand half the patients you're seeing are kids - or more than half.

PRATER: Yeah, over half have been children. Yeah, so desperate parents trying to keep themselves warm but more importantly, keep them out of harm's way and to keep them safe. And so it's just really an unfortunate situation - desperate times. Many of these are patients who are living in marginalized communities, and so it's a sad situation all around.

SHAPIRO: So help us give listeners some guidance on safer ways to stay warm without putting themselves and their families at risk. What do you advise?

PRATER: If you do have access to a generator and are using that to, you know, power a space heater or anything like that, then you want the generator outside and not near any of your windows. Certainly, under no circumstance, should you try to warm your home with a barbecue pit, a campfire stove or your stovetop or anything like that. The general guidance is to dress in as many layers as you can - long socks, long johns, thermal underwear, long sleeves, sweater over that, jackets, gloves, mittens, whatever you have and then either a beanie or a scarf on your head 'cause, you know, we generally lose quite a bit of heat from our head. And so anything you can do can also help to keep warm.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Samuel Prater is an ER physician with UT Health and Memorial Hermann in Houston.

Thank you very much.

PRATER: Thank you, Ari. I appreciate you having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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