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Dangerous cold has health officials out with tips, shelters above capacity

Last Updated Jan 4, 2018 at 10:05 pm EDT

A homeless man walks up to Shelter House for dinner in Thunder bay, Ont., , Thursday, March 3, 2016. The federal government is going to be asked today to trade their so-called "point-in-time" counts of the country's homeless in favour of real-time lists of people who are homeless or living in poverty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

A big chill has arrived in Waterloo Region, and that means health officials are issuing a reminder to bundle up, cover up, and smarten up.

Temperatures near the minus 40 mark are expected over the next few days, and Environment Canada has issued an extreme cold warning for most of southern Ontario.

Brandie Bevis with Region of Waterloo Public Health says if you’re headed outside, you’ll need to dress as warmly as you can.

“Skin can freeze in anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, so dress in layers and cover up as much as you can. It’s really the extremities that will be affected most.. so your fingers, toes, ears – that means you’ll need good hats, mittens, and boots.”

It’s also important to be prepared for any possible emergencies due to the cold weather, like keeping an emergency kit in your car, and extra blankets and clothing.

Bevis says this weather is no joke – and it’s not outrageous to think someone could get frostbite or hypothermia in Waterloo Region.

“Extreme cold puts everyone at risk, so it’s important to check on your family, friends, and neighbours. Children and older adults are more vulnerable since their bodies respond differently, so you need to keep that in mind as well. You also need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia.”

For frostbite, skin would be pale, grey, waxy, and there could be swelling or blistering. It could also feel like numbness or pain.

For hypothermia, signs include shivering, confusion, mumbling or stumbling, shallow breathing, a weak pulse, and a loss of consciousness.

Bevis says if someone is showing the signs of hypothermia, call 911 immediately.

“We’re a caring community, so if you see someone outside who needs help, please try to assist them. If they need shelter, there are different resources available. Our warming centres have been open since December, and they’re located right across the Region. You can direct them to those, or one of our emergency shelters – all that information is on our website.”

Mark Karjaluoto with Grand River Hospital also has a few recommendations to keep in mind during this stretch of extreme cold.

He says if you’ve been out in these conditions for too long and are desperately looking to warm up – don’t overdo it.

“You can put yourself at risk for burns if you try to get too close to a heating source, you need to take things slow and carefully. If someone is dealing with a severe circumstance, of course- seek medical attention immediately.”

If you’re looking to keep warm and stay safe inside of your home, Karjaluoto says it really just comes down to common sense.

“For people indoors, you also need to be prepared – like if your house loses power, or you’re running a gas appliance that could emit CO into the house – because that can pose a significant risk too. It’s really about using common sense and trying to consider what your circumstances are.”

The bitter cold has also taken a toll on local shelters. For the past month, demand at House of Friendship shelters has been well beyond capacity.

“There are periods of time over many years where we have high numbers, beyond capacity — but the numbers we’re seeing right now, we’ve never seen before. So they are very high,” says Housing Services Director, Christine Stevanus.

Stevanus says when shelters are full, they do use other resources so no one is left out in the cold.

“One of the creative solutions is something called ‘bunkies’ at The Working Centre at St. John’s Kitchen, and Public Health has extreme weather protocols, which lets people know where the warming centres are. We become very creative with finding places where people can stay so they are warm.”

HOF’s men’s shelter has the capacity to take in 51 people per night, and since mid-November, the demand has exceeded that.

Warming centres around the Region are up and running though – including in Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, and rural areas.