Drowning Deaths Rise Across the United States

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May 15, 2024 – Public health officials are calling for a nationwide effort to increase the number of people taking swimming lessons. That’s because new data show drowning deaths have sustained a troubling increase first observed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, more than half of U.S. adults have never taken a single swimming lesson, and 15% of adults do not know how to swim, according to survey data released alongside the CDC’s new unintentional drowning report. About two-thirds of people are comfortable swimming in water over their head, the survey showed.

Drowning deaths increased a dramatic 10.5% from 2019 to 2020, from 4,067 deaths in 2019 to 4,589 in 2020. During the prior decade, annual drowning deaths in the U.S. had stayed around 4,000 or less. But since the pandemic’s onset, the number has topped 4,500 annually. The report included new preliminary numbers for 2022, putting that year’s drowning total at 4,509.

The increase in deaths occurred across all age, racial, and ethnic groups, although several groups experienced larger increases than others, including children ages 1 to 4 years old, people ages 65 and older, and Black people. An estimator on the CDC’s website suggests that the more than 4,500 deaths in 2022 represent at least 110,000 years of potential life lost. 

“I’ve seen firsthand the effects of drowning: families forced to say goodbye to their loved ones too soon,” said CDC Chief Medical Officer Debra Houry, MD, MPH, in a statement. “CDC’s drowning prevention experts collected high-quality drowning data to better understand how we can protect people in communities across the United States. Understanding the barriers people face to accessing basic swimming and water safety skills training can help us better understand how to address those barriers, decrease drowning rates, and save lives.”

American Indian and Alaska Native people have the highest drowning rate of any racial or ethnic group. Black people have the second highest rate and experienced a 28% increase in drowning deaths between 2019 and 2021.

Compared to 15% of U.S. adults reporting they don’t know how to swim, the rate among Black adults was 37%. Black and Hispanic adults were among the least likely to have ever taken swimming lessons, with 63% of Black people saying they hadn’t taken lessons, and 72% of Hispanic adults never taking lessons.

“Differences in access to swimming lessons are one barrier that could contribute to these outcomes. Swimming lessons can be expensive or may not be available in some communities,” the CDC report authors wrote. “When swimming lessons are available, some people may be hesitant to participate due to complex social and cultural factors. Everyone should have access to basic swimming and water safety skills training.”

The CDC called on communities to build and revitalize public pools and to promote affordable swimming and water safety lessons, such as through the American Red Cross or YMCA. Other resources for swim lessons include the U.S. Swim School Association’s search tool and the USA Swimming website for guidance on choosing swim lessons and knowing when children are ready, the CDC advised, adding that everyone can prevent drowning by:

  • Learning basic swimming, water safety, and CPR skills, plus remembering that children who have had swimming lessons still need constant supervision when in or near water
  • Wearing a life jacket while boating, no matter a person’s age or swimming ability
  • Not using alcohol before or during water activities, even if you are only supervising children in the water