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The Increase in Drowning Deaths Should be a National Priority.

Mara Gay, Editorial Board Member
May 14 2024, 1:00 pm ET


Photo Credit: Allison Beonde for The New York Times

Drowning deaths in the United States rose by more than 12 percent to an estimated 4,500 per year during the pandemic, according to grim new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase, from 4,000 per year in 2019, comes as this long-neglected public health crisis is slowly beginning to draw some attention from government policymakers.

“It’s moving in the wrong direction,” the C.D.C. director, Dr. Mandy Cohen, told The Times. The agency said more than half of Americans had never taken a swimming lesson.

The sobering data is an opportunity for President Biden and health officials to finally make drowning prevention a national priority.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 in the United States and the second leading cause of death by accidental injury for children 5 to 14. Tackling the issue has clear bipartisan appeal and would improve quality of life in every American community.

Despite the obvious need for action, federal, state and local governments in the United States have invested very little to prevent these deaths.

The rise in deaths has caught the eye of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose philanthropy told The Times this week it plans for the first time to direct millions of dollars to drowning prevention efforts within the United States to improve data collection and help fund swimming lessons in 10 states where drowning rates are highest: Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.

The planned $17.6 million investment by Bloomberg Philanthropies is modest compared with the $104 million it is spending globally on preventing drownings. But the focus by Bloomberg, whose prominent public health campaigns helped ban smoking in bars and restaurants in New York, could help raise the profile of this issue. Executives at the philanthropy said they planned to work with the C.D.C.

Many Americans of even wealthy backgrounds have lost children to drowning. But drowning is also an issue of equity. Black people and Native Americans are at substantially increased risk of drowning. So are teenage boys. The C.D.C. report found that these trends have continued. In 2020, they said, Black Americans saw the greatest increase in fatal drownings.

Red Cross surveys suggest that a majority of Americans lack basic swimming abilities. With C.D.C. data showing the existence of more than 10 million private pools in the United States and fewer than 309,000 public ones, it’s clear that large numbers of Americans lack access to basic information about water safety, as well as safe places to learn to swim. Instead of a public health issue, drowning is treated as a private matter and swimming as a luxury. To save lives, this needs to change.

© The New York Times. Link to article.

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