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Alarming spike in Great Lakes drownings tied to COVID-19, study finds

Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press on

Published in News & Features

DETROIT — An alarming spike in the number of drownings across several of the Great Lakes last year may have been linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new research study finds.

The drownings, particularly on Lakes Michigan, Ontario and Huron, appeared to correlate to times when government restrictions on movement were relaxed amid the pandemic. As community swimming pools, water parks and other options for cooling off in the summer remained closed, more people apparently chose to visit local beaches on the Great Lakes. At many of those beaches, COVID-19 contributed to local governments not providing lifeguards, swimming area markings or flag warnings for dangerous wave days.

This year, Holland State Park has seen three deaths, including Eliza Trainer, 16, of Flint, who drowned after she and her friend were swept off the pier in January; Iain Rowe, 6, of Ferrysburg, who drowned after water conditions worsened on June 6; and Christian Ngabo, 17, of Grand Rapids, who drowned the same day and during the same conditions as Rowe.

"This means that a greater proportion of the beach users may not have had experience swimming in wave-dominated environments and may have overestimated their ability to swim safely," University of Windsor researchers Chris Houser and Brent Vlodarchyk found in their study, published in the new issue of the scientific journal Ocean & Coastal Management.

The results were deadly, particularly on three of the Great Lakes. Houser and Vlodarchyk compiled their 2020 drowning figures from May 1 to the end of September, and included only drownings related to waves and currents, not in boating or surfing accidents, for example.

On Lake Michigan, there were 37 drowning deaths in that 2020 period, 11 higher than the annual average from 2010 to 2019.


On Lake Ontario, there were 16 drownings, about 10 above historic annual trends.

On Lake Huron, there were eight drownings, about three above annual average.

Lakes Erie and Superior saw drowning deaths at about their historical averages, or even slightly lower. Houser speculated that could be because of relatively fewer Great Lakes beaches near large population centers on those lakes.

Drownings on Lake Michigan were below its historical average while Michigan, Illinois and Indiana were under stay-at-home orders or similar restrictions because of COVID-19 beginning in March, but began to increase in June, as Michigan moved into more relaxed restrictions, and as its stay-at-home order expired on June 19. It was at about the same time that restrictions were reduced in Indiana and Illinois.


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