Transcript for Vital Signs Telebriefing: Drowning Deaths Rise in the United States Making swimming lessons more accessible can save lives

Press Briefing Transcript

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Please Note: This transcript is not edited and may contain errors.


Hello and thank you all for standing by. At this time, I’d like to inform all participants that your lines are on a listen only mode until the question and answer session of today’s conference. This call is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time. I will now turn the call over to Benjamin Haynes. Sir, you may begin.


Thank you, Christy, and thank you all for joining us today as we release a new CDC Vital Signs. We are joined by Dr. Debra Houry. CDC’s Deputy Director for Program and Science and Chief Medical Officer; and Dr. Tessa Clemens, a health scientist in the Division of Injury Prevention in CDC’s National Center Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Please note that today’s briefing is embargoed until 1 PM Eastern, when our Vital Signs is live on the CDC website. I will now turn the call over to Dr. Houry.

HOURY 0:52

Well, hello and thank you for joining us today. This issue of CDC Vital Signs focuses on drowning rates in the US with an in depth look at the impact of drowning in certain ages, races, and ethnicities. This is a particularly timely issue with summer approaching when many of us are likely to be in the water. Preventative measures such as basic swimming and water safety skills training can reduce risk of drowning. This kind of training is critical as we found almost 40 million US adults report not knowing how to swim. Just stepping back for a minute and putting this into perspective, 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. And a heartbreaking statistic you may not be aware of, drowning is the number one cause of death for young children ages one to four. As an emergency physician, I saw firsthand the devastating effects of drowning. Families are torn apart, and lives are cut short. More than 4500 people die from drowning each year, an average of 12 people per day. Drowning deaths are also much higher for certain races and ethnicities. American Indian and Alaskan Native persons have the highest drowning rates overall, and drowning rates for black people have significantly increased over the past few years. We know that everyone can play a role in reducing drowning risk. CDC focuses on drowning prevention by providing timely, common-sense data, as well as information about evidence-based strategies for individuals and communities. CDC is a member of Water Safety USA, a collaboration of key organizations committed to preventing drowning and the US. Through this collaboration, the first US National Water Safety Action Plan was developed by hundreds of volunteers, drowning prevention experts and partners working together over four years. This plan provides tools for communities, counties and states based on evidence, informed recommendations, and guidance on making local water safety plans. There are many ways to prevent drowning. As a mom, I took my daughter to swim lessons when she was very young, and never left her unattended in the pool, even once she had learned to swim. This Vital Signs report focuses on one key piece of drowning prevention: basic swimming and water safety skills training. That means hands-on, in water training for kids and adults alike. I’ll now turn it over to Dr. Tessa Clemens to go over the specific findings of the Vital Signs report and highlight why this type of training is so important.


Thank you, Dr. Houry. Today’s Vital Signs highlight some of the increases and disparities in drowning death rates from 2020 to 2022. When compared to 2019. drowning death rates remain highest among children one to four years old, and Drowning is the leading cause of death in this age group. rates increased by 28% in 2020, compared to 2019 among children one to four. by race and ethnicity, American Indian or Alaskan Native people had the highest drowning rates, and black people had the second highest drowning rates. Drowning increased among Black people by 28% in 2021 Compared to 2019 We know that basic swimming and water safety skills training can reduce the risk of drowning. The new Vital Signs report found over half of adults in the United States have never taken a formal swimming lesson. The report also shows disparities when broken down by race and ethnicity with two out of three black adults and three out of four Hispanic adults reporting never having taken a swan Main Lesson. The exact cause of the recent increase in drowning death rates and widening disparities is unknown. We know that many public pools closed during the COVID 19 pandemic, which limited the availability of swimming lessons. Once pools reopened, many facilities faced shortages of trained swimming instructors and lifeguards, which further reduced availability of swimming lessons and safe swimming areas. There are also social and structural barriers that limit people’s access to basic swimming and water safety skills training. Swimming lessons can be expensive or unavailable in certain communities. Even when swimming lessons are available, people may be hesitant to participate due to complex social and cultural factors. For example, some people may have a fear of water, or may feel that the pool and swimming lessons are not a welcoming place. important historical factors also contribute to drowning rates, including racial segregation. With segregation there were fewer swimming options available for black people, pools were often poorly maintained or too shallow for swimming. After racial desegregation, many public pools closed, and fewer new pools were built. Further private swimming clubs emerge that restricted access for black people and people from other racial and ethnic groups through discriminatory membership requirements. These factors and many others influence current attitudes about swimming and impact people’s participation in swimming lessons. Everyone should have access to basic swimming and water safety skills training. addressing social and structural barriers that limit access to this training could advance health equity and reduce drowning deaths. I will now turn it back over to Dr. Houry to highlight how we can work together to prevent drowning.

HOURY 6:48

Thank you, Dr. Clemens. Dr. Clemens mentioned, we know that there are evidence-based strategies to reduce the risk of drowning. Findings from this vital science can guide the best solutions at the local, state, and federal level to prevent drowning. CDC invests in the health of our nation partnering with and funding organizations to provide basic swimming and water safety skills, especially in communities that would not otherwise have that availability. People need access to swimming lessons. Public health professionals and state and local governments can make sure basic swimming and water safety skills training is available and affordable for communities. The US National Water Action safety plan as a resource that can help states and local communities identify actions that can prevent drowning. We encourage all audiences to review this plan to better understand the steps to take to reduce drowning risks, such as using pool fencing, alarms and flotation devices such as life jackets. And what can each of us do. If you don’t know how to swim or are not comfortable swimming, take a swim lesson. More than half of all US adults have never had a swim lesson. Make sure kids get basic swimming and water safety skills training and pay close attention to children whenever they are in or near water. Adults should avoid drinking alcohol before and during swimming and boating and went out on open water wear a life jacket. These steps can save your life or a loved one’s life. Thank you for your time today. I will now open it up for questions.


We are ready to take questions.


Thank you at this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press star one on your phone. Please make sure that your phone is unmuted and state your name clearly when prompted. Again, that is star one on your phone. One moment while we wait for questions to come in. Our first question comes from Sarah Danziger of ABC News. Your line is open.


What are updated numbers on deaths from unintentional drowning in 2023 and, if available, in 2024? Thank you.

HOURY 9:23

This is Dr. Houry. We don’t have those data yet, as part of our provisional estimates, but we will continue to update those numbers as they come in.


Next question, please.


Thank you. The next question comes from Jenny Gold of LA Times. Your line is open.


Hi there. What is the right time for babies, toddlers, and very young children to start swimming lessons?

HOURY 9:53

This is Dr. Houry and that is a fantastic question. What I would say is, you know, it’s never too young to really have that exposure to water to get comfort with it. We recommend swim lessons really for those ages one to four, where there’s the highest drowning risk, that’s a great time to really have those swim lessons so that young children develop those skills don’t have a fear of water. 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 on those young children.


Next question, please.


Thank you. The next question comes from Brenda Goodman, of CNN, your line is open.


Hi, thanks for taking my question. I just have a question about a line in the study introduction that says, after decades of decreasing drowning rates in the United States drowning rates increased. And I just wondered if you had any idea of when the last time was drownings increased in the US?


Hi, this is Dr. Clemens. So, we know that drowning rates have been declining in the past several decades. So the increase really started in 2020. When there was previously a spike in drownings in a sustained way like this is outside of the scope of this study. But we’d be happy to follow up with that information. Thank you.


Yeah, I tried to find it on the website, and I wasn’t able to so I thought maybe you might know. Thank you.


Next question, please.


Thank you. Our next question comes from Mike Stobbe of the Associated Press, your line is open.


Thanks, thanks for taking the question. I wasn’t able to see a copy of this. So I’m at a big disadvantage. I don’t know if other reporters received an advance copy. But I guess I need to start by just asking what some of the numbers are? Could you share with me you talked about a 20% increase by race. But what are the number? I mean, what how many drowning deaths were there in 2019? How many were there? 2020, 2021, 2022? How many white? How many black? How many? If you could break down those numbers for me, thank you.

HOURY 12:25

There were 4067 drowning deaths in 2019. And then each year after that there were over 4500 drowning deaths. So in 2020, it was 4589 in 2021 4677, and in 2020 to 4509 drowning deaths. And by race and ethnicity, American Indian or Alaskan Native persons have the highest rates of drowning. But these rates did not significantly increase during the study period, black or African American persons had the next highest rates of drowning. And these rates did significantly increase from 2019 to 2021. By 28%. So the number of drowning deaths that year for Black or African American persons was 780.


Next question, please.


Thank you. Our next question comes from Alexander Tin of CBS. Your line is open.


Hi, thanks for taking the time to do this. Can you first comment on is it accurate to say that racial disparities aren’t new in drowning deaths? I’m just hoping you could maybe comment and expand a bit on what this compares to what we saw before the pandemic. And then secondly, I’m wondering if you can also expand a little bit on the trends in kids one to five, there’s a line in the study about, you know, not going up in 2020. I’m wondering if you can comment on what you think that says about the trends that you


This is Dr. Tessa Clemens. For the first question. I know racial and ethnic disparities and drowning rates are not new. 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 desperately higher risk for drowning. The second question we can’t know for sure what impacted drowning rates in each of these years. So the increases in 2021 and 2022 among children, one to four years who are already grouped at the highest risk of drowning, again, are highly concerning. But it’s beyond the scope of this study, to know what the exact factors were that might have contributed to those increases in 2021 and 2022 that we did not see in 2020 in that age group.

HOURY 15:08

And this is Dr. Houry. You know, I would just add, this is why it’s so important that we work with community-based organizations. We are funding the American Red Cross and the YMCA to work in local communities to ensure equitable access to swim lessons so that everybody has a chance to thrive.


Next question, please.


Thank you. As a reminder, if you would like to ask a question, please press star one on your phone. Please ensure that your phone is unmuted and state your name clearly when prompted. Our next question comes from Sophia of Georgia Public Broadcasting, your line is open.

SOPHIA 15:46

Hi, thank you. I’m wondering if their updated numbers per state in this study, I also wasn’t able to take a look at it before joining this call. So asking about updated numbers. And then when you say that the CDC is working with local organizations to tackle this equity problem and drowning deaths, does that mean that y’all are funding projects? Or what does that look like? Thanks.


So this report is national and it does not break the numbers down by state. However, we do have that information available and we’d be happy to provide that to you in follow up for GA in terms of the program. CDC does work with the YMCA and the American Red Cross, and others to support basic swimming and water safety skills training at the community level with the goals of evaluating how to best deliver this training as well as how to best increase access to persons who are at increased risk of drowning in communities.


We have time for two more questions.


Thank you. The next question comes from Rachel Lucas of WSLS. Your line is open.


Hi, Thanks for taking my question. I appreciate it. I was wondering if you have seen any trends in rural areas versus metropolitan areas as far as drowning deaths and access to swimming lessons.


So we did not look at rural versus urban drowning in this particular study. But previous research published by CDC had shown increased risk of drowning in rural areas. So drowning rates are higher in rural areas. And it is likely that there may be challenges associated with accessing basic swimming and water safety skills training. Again, other studies have demonstrated that some parents have identified access to a facility or transportation to a swimming facility as a barrier to accessing that training. So again, supporting community-based organizations to be able to increase that access is really critical so that everyone can learn how to swim regardless of where they are.


Perfect. Thank you so much.


And our last question, please.


Thank you. Our last question comes from Akira McCarthy of Fort Worth Star Telegram. Your line is open. Hi there.


Thank you so much for taking my question. I was just wondering if this report covers all locations of drownings, so bathtubs and open bodies of water or if it just focuses on pools?

HOURY 18:43

Hi, yes, this covers all locations of drowning. So bathtubs pools open water such as lakes, ocean rivers, it’s all drowning locations where an unintentional drowning deaths occurred.


Okay, great. And was there any increase? Depending on locations we see more in pools compared to the wind bodies of water for example?

HOURY 19:06

We did not look at that in this report.


Thank you.


If there’s one more we’ll take it.


Thank you. We do have Dr. Darren Sutton of ABC News. Your line is open.

SUTTON 19:20

Good afternoon. Just one additional question. You discuss the water safety USA. Can you just explain exactly what that what that collaboration isn’t means?

HOURY 19:30

Sure, that’s a group of partners that we’ve been working together with for about four years, including, you know, community groups, different provider organizations, and it has over 90 different action based recommendations that you can do at ranges from data collection to different policies to how to protect a pool like with things like pool fencing, so really robust guide that we have now. It’s up online on the website. If you look at the US, national water safety action plan. They have some of those there. And CDC is also actively participating in that and supporting the implementation. Thank you.


Dr. Houry, would you like to wrap the session? Yeah. So

HOURY 20:13

You know, I would just say that I think there’s so much opportunity from the study to take this to the next step, when you think that one in three black adults reported not knowing how to swim compared to 15% of all adults, it’s never too late to take that swim lesson to get those water safety skills, particularly as we’re going into the summer, it’s really a crucial time, it can save your life that can save you know, your family members life. And when I just look at the overall numbers overall, you know, with over 4000 people dying over 12 people a day, that’s really one person every two hours. And those are lives, not numbers. And so I hope that all of you take this information and really disseminated on how we can prevent drowning and save lives this summer and throughout the year. Thank you.


Thank you, Dr. Houry. And thank you, Dr. Clemens. And thank you to all the reporters that joined us today. If you have follow up questions, please call the press office at 404-639-3286 or you can email One last reminder, everything that we discussed today, as well as the Vital Signs will come off of embargo at 1pm. Eastern when the materials are posted to the website. Thank you and this will conclude our call.


Thank you. This does conclude today’s conference. You may disconnect at this time. Thank you and have a good day.


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