Health Advice



Drownings rose among young children after decades of decline. It's 'highly concerning,' CDC says

Jenny Gold, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

LOS ANGELES — During the pandemic years of shuttered pools and difficult-to-find swim lessons, the drowning rate of very young children increased significantly in the U.S., following decades of declines, according to a new federal report.

Drowning rates among children 1 to 4 were about 28% higher in 2021 and 2022, compared to 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2022, 461 children ages 1 to 4 died in a drowning accident, which is the number one cause of death among babies and toddlers. Rates are not yet available for 2023 or 2024, so it's unknown whether deaths have declined since then.

But children ages 1 to 4 already had the highest rates of drowning, even before the pandemic. The recent increase is "highly concerning," said Tessa Clemens, a health scientist in the CDC's Division of Injury Prevention and lead author of the new report.

While the exact reason for the increase is unknown, the shutdown likely played a role, she said.

"Many public pools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited the availability of swim classes. Once pools reopened, many facilities faced shortages of trained swimming instructors and lifeguards," said Clemons. For many families, swim lessons and safe swim areas remained difficult to come by.

In Los Angeles, lifeguard shortages have continued to be a problem. Last summer, some public pools cut their hours and swim lessons were canceled because lifeguards were so difficult to find. Pandemic shutdowns fueled the so-called "great resignation," in which many college-aged lifeguards quit to return to school or seek work in other industries. Many never came back.


Facing another likely shortage as summer approaches, the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation has increased lifeguard wages by 20% this year.

Experts say water safety should be top of mind for families, especially in Los Angeles County, home to about 250,000 swimming pools, 96% of which are attached to single-family homes, according to a 2016 analysis.

The CDC recommends that families begin swim lessons early — even while their children are babies.

"It's never too young to really have that exposure to water to get comfort with it," said Dr. Debra Houry, the CDC's chief medical officer. "What I would say though, is even at that age if they do know how to swim, it's still really important to have close parental supervision."


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