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    Why is drowning on the rise in Orange County and nationally?
    • May 31, 2024

    Even though it happened about 30 feet from where she stood, Eloise Burke didn’t see or hear her little sister, Ginny, die.

    It was 1958, a warm but not hot summer day in Miami, and the sisters were playing in a public pool. Ginny, 7, was with some kids Eloise, then 10, didn’t know. And when those kids took their game to a different part of the pool they left Ginny behind, just below the surface.

    The little girl drowned the way a lot of people drown; without a visible struggle or a sound.

    “I remember it for a lot of reasons, of course. But I really remember how surprised I was,” said Burke, now 75, and living in Costa Mesa.

    “How could nobody not even notice?”

    The particular type of horror is on the rise.

    Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, drowning deaths have spiked, nationally and in Orange County.

    Though a new report from the Centers for Disease Control doesn’t offer exact year-to-year national totals, it cites drowning rates that pencil out to more than 4,500 deaths each year from 2020 through 2022. That’s at least a 12.5% jump, or 500 more lives lost, from what was a fairly steady national average (about 4,000 drowning deaths per year) for much of the 2010s.

    What’s more, because pre-pandemic drowning numbers were holding steady even as the population grew, the new death rates reflect a change in trajectory: A problem that seemed to be slowly improving might be rapidly getting worse.

    Local health officials say the national trend also has played out in Orange County, where access to the ocean and public and private pools makes the community something of a hot spot for both swimming and drowning.

    Last year, 54 people in Orange County drowned, up from 43 who perished that way in 2022, according to preliminary county data. State data shows that in 2019 there were just 31 drowning deaths in Orange County.

    Most of the victims, nationally and locally, are little kids, ages 1 to 4. In fact, pre-pandemic, drowning was a leading cause of death in that age group, and federal data shows that from 2019 through 2022, there was a 28% spike in drowning deaths involving young children.

    County health officials are only starting to sift through the national numbers and the preliminary local data, which tracks through 2023, a year that’s not yet available nationally. But, for the moment, the thinking is that people need to get – and heed – long-standing public health messages about water safety.

    “There just needs to be a lot more education about this,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, Orange County’s chief medical officer.

    “We offer a lot, in that, and (we) have for a long time. But maybe there’s a need for even more, particularly for communities that haven’t been getting any message about water safety.”

    Other experts agree, though they suggest there might be a need to modernize at least some of what’s being fed to the public. Some long-standing public health messages about water safety – learn to swim, learn CPR, don’t let kids swim without a specific adult assigned to watch them, don’t drink or take drugs while swimming, don’t underestimate the danger of the ocean or even a bathtub – aren’t sinking in.

    One example, they note, is the most basic of all water safety rules, the one about learning to swim. Public health agencies have been telling people to do that for decades but, according to new survey results from the CDC, a lot of people have ignored them.

    In its report, issued May 23, the CDC found that about 15.4% of all American adults (roughly 40 million people) don’t know how to swim, and that only about 45% of all adults have ever had a formal swim lesson at some point in their lives. The swim instruction rates are lowest for people of color, particularly Hispanics (28%) and Black (37%) people, and only slightly better among Asians and Native Americans (47%), and only a slight majority of White people (52%) have had a swim lesson.

    Some of that data might reflect long-standing racism that, for generations, prevented people of color from having full access to public swimming facilities. And the CDC notes that, indeed, people of color were more likely than White people to drown during the pandemic, particularly when surveys take into account any racial group’s estimated use of pools, the ocean and other swimming options.

    The CDC said during the pandemic Hispanics suffered an unexpectedly big increase in drownings.

    “Drowning death rates have not historically been disproportionately high among Hispanic persons; however, drowning deaths (among that group) were significantly higher in 2020, 2021 and 2022, compared with the rate in 2019,” the CDC wrote.

    Orange County is seeing a similar trend involving a different community. Chinsio-Kwong noted that local people of Asian descent suffered a disproportionately big jump in drowning deaths over the past year, though she doesn’t yet have a specific explanation for why that’s happened.

    “Maybe it’s about access,” she said, adding that the issue warrants more scrutiny.

    That basic idea, more scrutiny, also applies to the question of why there’s been a drowning surge since the start of the pandemic. In theory, drownings should not have spiked during a period when so much of American life was pole-axed by the spread of COVID-19. Public pools and beaches were closed during the pandemic’s early months, and full access didn’t resume in much of the country until mid-2021.

    Some experts argue that outdoor public pools and beaches were, like golf courses and a few other open-air sports, among the first places people returned to as public gathering rules lifted. So, maybe more drowning was a result of more people swimming.

    Others note that the same rules that closed public facilities also meant fewer people were trained as lifeguards and fewer kids received swim lessons, factors that could easily lead to a rise in drowning deaths.

    Tessa Clemens, a scientist with the CDC who was the lead author of the new report, told National Public Radio that the causes for the pandemic-era surge in drownings were “complex.”

    “We know that many public pools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited the availability of swimming lessons,” Clemens said. “Once pools reopened, many facilities faced shortages of trained swimming instructors and lifeguards, which further reduced availability of swimming lessons and safe swimming areas.”

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    Mock-drowning victim Katrina Silva, 12, is carried out of the water by lifeguard Andrew Maass, 23, of Mission Viejo, as parents Dan and Teri Silva react, at right, during Water Safety Day at the Sierra Recreation Center pool in 2014. (File photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Lifeguards Brendan Patron demonstrates a swim stroke during the Water Safety is for YOU! swim class at the Fullerton Boys & Girls Club in Fullerton, CA, on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Lifeguards work to rescue Joey Callanan as he plays the part of a drowning victim during a mock rescue near the Seal Beach Pier in 2015. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)




    ​ Orange County Register