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Drowning deaths surged during the pandemic — and it was worse among Black people, CDC reports

Tips to protect kids from drowning
What parents can do to protect kids from drowning 01:44

The nationwide surge in accidental drowning deaths early during the COVID-19 pandemic was disproportionately worse for Black people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday — a finding in line with longstanding disparities.

Compared to 2019, drowning rates increased among Black people by 22.2% in 2020 and 28.3% in 2021. Drowning rates were the worst overall for Black people as well as American Indian and Alaska Native people in those first two years.

In 2022, the largest increase was in Hispanic people. For them, drowning deaths that year climbed 24.8% above levels seen in 2019 before the pandemic.

"Drowning is a serious public health problem. Drowning can happen to anyone, at any time, there is access to water. It can be quick, silent, and deadly," Dr. Debra Houry, the CDC's chief medical officer, told reporters Tuesday.

Overall, the CDC blames around 4,000 deaths each year on accidental drowning. Health officials and experts previously warned of an uptick in drowning deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the highest rates among young children under five years old. 

"The exact cause of the recent increase in drowning death rates and widening disparities is unknown," Tessa Clemens, a health scientist with the CDC's Division of Injury Prevention, said.

Clemens cited shortages of swimming lessons and lifeguards during the pandemic, as well as larger social barriers limiting access to safety precautions, as among the potential explanations for the increases and disparities.

The study published Tuesday took a closer look at demographic breakdowns of those drowning trends from the first three years of the pandemic, alongside new federal survey results on the topic. 

It comes as data tallied by the agency for 2023 suggests that unintentional drowning deaths might have slowed back down to around pre-pandemic levels. At least 3,845 deaths in 2023 were blamed on unintentional drowning, though the figures have not yet been finalized.

Drowning deaths by race

Racial disparities in drowning deaths are not new. Before the pandemic, the CDC reported the gap between drowning death rates in White versus Black people was widening.

"We did see these disparities prior to the pandemic, and for several decades. It is concerning that there are increases in drowning rates among some of these groups that were already at disparately higher risk for drowning," said Clemens.

One data point that might help explain the disparity in drowning deaths could be a gap in swimming skills

In its new study, the CDC found that more than a third of Black adults and around a quarter of Hispanic adults said that they did not know how to swim, when asked by an agency-funded survey in November. This was multiple times higher than White adults, of whom 6.9% say they do not know how to swim.

More than half of white adults also say they have taken swimming lessons, compared to 36.9% of Black adults and 28.1% of Hispanic adults.

Black adults were also less likely to have spent time at swimming pools and other bodies of water, suggesting that rates of drowning deaths may be even worse for Black people than the topline figures suggest.

More than half of White adults said they had spent time at a swimming pool or other body of water in the last six months. Less than a third of Black adults had spent time at pools and only around a quarter in other bodies of water.

"Findings related to adults' exposure to recreational water suggest that population-based drowning rates might be underestimating disparities," the study's authors wrote.

Drowning deaths by age

While drowning death rates remain the worst for young children ages 1 to 4 years old, the study found that deaths did not increase significantly in 2020.

The authors say this complicates the theory that young children spending more time at home during the pandemic, swimming in places like backyard pools, could explain the pandemic increase. Instead, rates of deaths for these young children only increased in 2021 and 2022.

That year, the CDC study's authors found that the largest increase in drowning death rates was in young adults ages 15 to 24 years old, climbing by 31.3% compared to 2019.

While the increases were not as large, the next highest rates in drowning deaths after young children remain in seniors, where rates have been worsening for decades.

Seniors at least 65 years old were also the least likely to tell the CDC survey in November that they had ever taken swimming lessons among all age groups. In this age group, 18.6% say they do not know how to swim.

"More work is needed to understand the circumstances of drowning among older adults in the United States and to develop tailored drowning prevention strategies," the study's authors said.

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