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North Bay public health officials stress water safety as summer approaches

The Press Democrat - 5/20/2024

May 17—Behind the arrival of summer, and all the outdoor activities it heralds, lurks a perennial menace for the water-going public, and especially for young children: drowning.

Even today, decades after swimming lessons became common for a large though still incomplete share of Americans, drowning remains the leading cause of death among kids age 1-4.

For children ages 5—14, drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death after motor vehicle crashes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationally drowning death rates are on the rise, and were highest among children under 5, according to a CDC report released this week. Drowning among children under 5 increased by more than 28% in 2021 and 2022, compared to 2019, the report said.

But in Sonoma County rates are actually declining, while in Napa County they're stable.

Liz Phares, Sonoma County's health officer, said the recent drowning of a 14-year-old San Francisco boy in the Russian River illustrates the need for greater water safety awareness. The boy, Justin Huang, was reported missing in the river April 11 north of Forestville. His body was recovered the following day.

Phares said in an email that as the summer months set in, it's important to focus on water safety and the risks posed to children, as well as adults who do not know how to swim.

"Children are at high risk of drowning," she wrote. "It's tragic and can happen so quickly if an unsupervised child wanders off where they have access to water."

Local drownings down

In the past five years, drownings in Sonoma County have gone from 8 fatalities in 2017 to 5 last year, according to public health officials.

In fact, between 2013 and 2017, the county averaged nearly 8 drowning fatalities a year. But since then, the drowning deaths have averaged 5.5 a year.

The local trend runs counter to national data released his week by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that more than 4,500 people died due to drowning each year from 2020 to 2022.

That's 500 more fatal drownings a year compared to 2019.

What makes a difference?

Local health officials and youth advocates credit Sonoma County's success to aggressive water safety programs that teach young people how to swim, more life guard stations, as well as the proliferation of warning signs at local lakes, rivers and ocean beaches.

Don Hicks, a member of the Sebastopol Rotary Club who learned to swim at a very young age in his native Australia, knows the importance of water safety instruction. Hicks, who used to be supervisor of aquatics for the city of Santa Rosa, said overcoming the fear of water is the first step.

"For every 100 kids you teach to swim you save a life," Hicks said. "

This year, the Sebastopol Rotary Club's free Learn to Swim program has taught 360 kids from 10 schools how to swim. Over the program's 40-year history, it has reached more than 13,000 kids.

By Hick's count, based on drowning statistics, that's 3 lives saved this year and 130 since the program was founded in 1984.

"We offer swim lessons to every second grader in Sebastopol," Hicks said. "We're definitely saving lives by doing this."

Safeguarding young swimmers

On Wednesday, Noah Austin and Jamuna Schaeffer of Santa Rosa watched their 8-year-old son Isaiah, play at Ives Pool with little fear of the water.

Isaiah, who is among Learn to Swim's newest graduates, said he's gotten over his fear of going under water.

Asked what advice he would give to other children who are wary of the water, Isaiah said, "Just do it."

His parents said they've learned certain things about swimming just from watching him during his lessons.

"I can actually do the arm stroke now," Schaeffer, his mother, said.

Phares, the Sonoma County health officer, said drowning risks can be reduced by making sure pools are fenced and children are closely supervised anywhere there is water.

"Signing up for swimming lessons can also help keep kids safe in the water," she wrote.

By race and ethnicity, whites and Latinos comprised 100% of drowning deaths in Sonoma County last year, health officials said. No separate breakdown was available by Thursday.

Local officials said that among white people, drowning deaths were similar to the 10-year average for this group. However, among Latinos there was one fewer drowning in 2023 than for the 10-year average for this group.

In 2023, there were no drownings at Sonoma Coast beaches or out in the ocean.

There was one more river drowning in 2023 than the 10-year average and 1 more hot tub/pool death last year than the 10-year average, officials said.

Napa County figures

In the past five years, Napa County water ways have claimed mostly the lives of out-of-town visitors, public health officials said.

Since 2019, there have been 3 fatal drownings among Napa County residents within county limits; another two people drowned outside of the county. The ages of those who died ranged from late teens to mid-90s — 40% occurred among people 29 and younger and 80% of the drowning deaths were male.

Officials said 15 out-of-town visitors drowned in Napa County in the past five years. Of those, 14 were Bay Area residents and 1 was an out-of-state resident.

Similarly, their ages ranged from midteens to mid-90s, with 44% occurring among ages 29 and younger and 83% were male.

Half of those drowning deaths in Napa County occurred at Lake Berryessa, said Napa County Health Officer Dr. Christine Wu.

Wu said in 22% of the deaths, acute alcohol intoxication was listed as a "significant condition" on the death certificate.

"This stresses the importance of not mixing alcohol use with water activities that are popular during the summertime," she said in an email.

Disparate risk for people of color

The CDC's report this week found that groups already at higher risk saw the greatest increases in drowning deaths. This includes children 1-4 years old and adults 65 years and older of all races and ethnicities, as well as Black people of all ages.

Drowning rates continue to be highest among toddlers, the CDC found.

By race and ethnicity, the highest drowning rates were among Black people and Native Americans.

The CDC said that making swimming lessons accessible saves lives. The number of people in the United States who do not know how to swim is staggering, the agency found.

Almost 40 million adults, of 15.4% of the U.S. population, do not know how to swim and 54.7% have never taken a swimming lesson.

The numbers are higher for minorities, with more than 36.8% of Black adults reporting they do not know how to swim. Also, 63% of Black adults and 72% of Latino adults reported never taking a swimming lesson.

Water safety programs like Sonoma County's bilingual Vamos a Nadar specifically target youth in underrepresented communities who may not have access to a pool or a trained swimming instructor.

The program, which is sponsored by the Sonoma County Regional Parks, was launched in 2004 by county parks officials, the local Red Cross and others to reduce drowning deaths in the county. Since then, the program has taught more than 3,000 mostly Latinos kids to swim.

Swim lessons save lives

Greg Jacobs, another Sebastopol Rotary Club member and longtime coordinator of its Learn to Swim program, said teaching water safety is a crucial part of learning to swim. That means teaching young kids never to go into water alone and avoiding areas where you can't see the bottom.

Jacobs, 76, said too many drowning occur among visitors to the North Bay who are unfamiliar with local waterways.

"The ones that I read about in the paper are people who come up to our county and they just don't know what they're getting into," he said "And they don't have the skills."

Figures show, however, that the majority of drowning deaths in Sonoma County occur among local residents. Between 2013 and 2022, about 57% of drowning deaths in Sonoma County were among county residents, officials said.

In 2023, four of the five drowning deaths in Sonoma County were among Sonoma County residents.

At Ives Pool in Sebastopol, even those who already knew how to swim learned something from the Rotary program.

Jackie Hall of Santa Rosa said her 8-year-old son Weston has been swimming for four years, but he learned to commit to one-side breathing while freestyle swimming.

"He's got a really clean swim now," she said. "We raced each other on Mother's Day and he beat me."

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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