Drownings — leading cause of death in young children — could rise during COVID-19 summer, health officials warn

July 10, 2020

Water safety is a worry every summer.

When temperatures rise, people look for ways to cool off. And swimming, from public pools to open water, is a favorite.

But the risk of drowning is ever present. From 2014 to 2018, 57 Multnomah County residents died from unintentional drowning. In young children, unintentional drowning is the second leading cause of death behind birth defects.

This summer, drowning deaths could be even greater, health officials warn. More people might frequent open-water swimming spots — even as COVID-19 restrictions mean many of those spots won’t have lifeguards on duty.

Because of COVID-19, many supervised places to swim, such as public pools and splash pads, won’t be open, says Brendon Haggerty, a Multnomah County environmental health research analyst. 

And it's not just the closures of pools that will contribute to the increase in open water swimming, Haggerty said. Because of COVID-19, other places where people might normally go to escape the heat — like malls, libraries and movie theaters — either won’t be open or will be seen as too risky to frequent.

“We expect that some of those places won't be open or available at all,” Haggerty says. “But also, folks might choose not to use that as their relief from heat for fear of exposure [to COVID-19].”

The projected increase in activity in open-water areas is especially dangerous this summer, given that lifeguards at open-water locations will be off-duty because of COVID-19.

For young children, the risk of drowning could even be high at home. Parents who are teleworking may not be able to provide adequate supervision around backyard pools, spas or ornamental ponds. 

Haggerty says this same mix of factors has already led to an increase in drownings in Southern states. 

In light of those risks, Multnomah County is urging as many people as possible to learn basic water safety. Below are some guidelines to ensure you and your family are informed and can stay safe. 

Multnomah County also advises cooling off in ways that maintain physical distancing to avoid increased exposure to COVID-19. That could include limiting alcohol and sugary drinks, taking a cool shower or bath, wearing light or loose clothing, and using fans.

For young children:

  • Prevent unsupervised access to water and maintain close supervision (constant and undistracted).

  • When playing in water, maintain one arm's length of reach. 

  • Empty and turn over inflatable pools when they are not in use so they do not collect rainwater.

  • Avoid leaving out buckets or other objects that may collect water.

  • Cover or fence off any open water around your residence (pools, spa, ornamental ponds) when not in use; use proper equipment (fencing of at least 4 feet high and coverings that can support the weight of a small child).

  • Always have a phone nearby to call 911.

For older children and adolescents:

  • Prevent unsupervised access to open water and maintain close supervision (constant and undistracted).

  • Only allow children to enter water with permission and if they have adequate swimming skills.

  • Do not allow children to enter the water without a swimming buddy.

  • Always have a phone nearby to call 911.

General safety:

  • Be aware of the risks before swimming in unsupervised open water.

  • Do not swim in unsupervised open water without proper swimming and CPR skills. 

  • Use life jackets and personal floatation devices 

  • Never swim while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

  • Before entering unsupervised open water, check for dangerous conditions (fast currents, submerged hazards) and identify a safe and easy exit from the water.

  • Always have a phone nearby to call 911.

  • Call 911 immediately if a loved one is or may be at risk of drowning. 

For additional information, visit Water Safety USA.