‘Wake up:’ New York drownings on the rise

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STILLWATER – A helicopter hung above Lake Saratoga on Sept. 1 as onlookers gazed out into the dark, choppy water.

Yet hope at Brown’s Beach turned to despair after the plane heaved, spun and landed as rescue boats appeared to locate their target.

Grief ran through the group.

It’s a scene repeated across New York during an unusually hot and dry summer that saw people flock to rivers, lakes and pools for relief from record-breaking temperatures.

The number of drownings in the state is at the highest level in decades.

State police investigated 25 fatal drownings statewide this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a 67% increase from the same time last year, when 15 people died. drowned (the tally, which was provided to the Times Union, does not include investigations into which county sheriff’s departments took the lead, further increasing the death toll).

Soldiers handled 16 inquiries in 2020 and nine the previous year.

Zooming out, there is a degree of clarity when looking at federal statistics.

Statewide drownings in 2020 — the most recent year for which federal data is available — rose 32% from the previous year, from 184 to 242, which is the median average going up two decades. The fatalities, which include all in-water fatalities, are the highest since at least 1999, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database began.

“This really is a (national) trend that has reversed the slow, steady decline in fatal drownings in this country since 2019,” said Dr. Linda Quan, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

Nationwide drownings had dropped 32% in the past decade before the reversal. Quan attributed the surge to a confluence of factors, including people seeking to combat pandemic boredom, rising temperatures, increasingly affordable recreational watercraft and a lack of universal water safety programs.

“Between the weather, our social reluctance to tackle drowning — and drowning prevention — we allowed this to happen,” Quan said. “And it’s really happened in the last three years.”

This year’s deaths in eastern New York and the Hudson Valley run the gamut from overturned kayaks and canoes to terrifying footage involving extended families, including when two men drowned in White Lake in Bethel last month and another family member was seriously injured while trying to save a loved one in distress.

Nobody knew how to swim, said Faruque Amin, who described seeing his brother-in-law and brother succumb in the waters despite trying to rescue him in a pedal boat. Her sister survived but was hospitalized on life support.

The area of ​​the lake where the Long Island family recreated is mostly shallow water, but Amin described an unpredictable dip in the lake’s terrain, a steep but narrow ditch where the water depth dips to about 20 feet.

“Next thing, I know I’m shot,” Amin said in a YouTube video posted hours after the Aug. 28 incident. “All I remember in that moment is I’m almost out of breath. And then somehow, I’m trying to push them up.

Some upstate counties have seen higher numbers of fatal drownings this summer.

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office, for example, was the lead agency for four drownings compared to none the previous year, according to statistics provided by the county.

Two boaters have died in separate incidents in Clinton County, marking the first drownings in the state’s northernmost county since 2018, both of whom died after their kayaks overturned.

Washington County was also hit with fatalities this summer after several years without fatalities, including Onnex Thompson-Hall, a 6-year-old autistic child who went missing and was found drowned in a pond near his home, and Brett Hilliker, a 24-year-old resident of Granville whose body was discovered after he was also said to have disappeared.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 3,960 fatal drownings per year, according to the (CDC), or 11 per day. The number of near-drownings is about twice as high.

Yet the true number of fatalities is likely higher because some fatal water injuries – including those caused by strokes or cardiac events, or others that list another underlying cause as contributing factors – aren’t always counted in drowning statistics, experts said.

“It’s startling and scary, but even a far cry from getting the full picture of what’s going on,” said Megan Ferraro, executive director of the ZAC Foundation, a water safety advocacy group.

The spike in drownings this summer in New York City reflects broader trends that emerged at the start of the pandemic nearly three years ago.

Ferraro said another key reason for the surge is that a public reeling from the pandemic is letting its guard down when it comes to water safety. Additionally, a chronic shortage of lifeguards has led to the closure of public swimming pools, prompting people to seek other riskier environments, including increasingly volatile natural bodies of water due to climate change, including rougher oceans, lakes and rivers.

“So what you once saw as a safe place to swim is actually more difficult and less safe,” Ferraro said.

The ZAC Foundation is part of a coalition of groups working on a proposed National Water Safety Action Plan, which they hope to release next spring.

Better data collection will be one element, Ferraro said, among other suggested public guidelines and recommendations to help reduce the risk of drowning, including the use of life jackets for anyone heading into the water. – without exception.

“This will require much more detailed, real-time data collection so that we can provide real-time warnings to populations of risks,” Ferraro said.

Children are particularly at risk, with child drowning continuing to be the leading cause of unintentional death in children aged 1 to 4, apart from birth defects.

Near-drownings are also on the rise, with injuries involving children under 15 rising 17% in 2021 with 6,800 reported injuries, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, which urges parents to promote safety vigilance. water safety.

Drowning in the United States also disproportionately impacts people of color.

Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely to drown than their white counterparts, according to a 2021 CDC report that determined that longstanding racial disparities have only widened over the past two decades.

Compared to non-Latino whites, the rate was twice as high among Native Americans or Alaska Natives, according to the report.

The numbers are also disproportionate in New York, where whites drowned at a rate of 9.35 per 1 million people, a number that jumped to 22 per 1 million for blacks, according to a 2020 report from the Department of Health. state health. The rate for Latinos was 12.2.

The inequity stems from years of disinvestment in water safety programs and municipal pools in urban communities, said Kendra DeLoach McCutcheon, an associate professor at Syracuse University’s Falk College of Sport & Human Dynamics, along with d a legacy of segregation that prevented black people from using the facilities.

Seventy percent of black children and 60 percent of Hispanic youth cannot swim, McCutcheon said.

The fear of water is compounded when friends and neighbors drown, creating a generational cycle.

“When we hear these statistics, there’s a community connection,” McCutcheon said. “These are family members and community members who have died and that reinforces the fear.”

McCutcheon is a member of Sigma Gamma Rho, Inc., a historically black nonprofit community service organization that has partnered with USA Swimming to strengthen water safety programs for people of color, including young black girls. Ideally, participants will transition from educational “dry” clinics to “wet” clinics that teach them how to swim.

Some of the programming is specifically designed for young black girls to take good care of their hair in the water.

“It becomes a big deal because of the love, the intensity and the time it takes to create these styles,” McCutcheon said. “So how do you get over this? »

Quan, the pediatrician, said New York was among states with a high number of state-regulated swimming spots, as well as one that has designated staff for water facilities at state parks; for example, Washington state removed that years ago, she said.

Still, drownings are likely to only continue to escalate in the absence of broader educational change, Quan said, among everyone from teenagers to the elderly who are becoming more physically active in the years 70 and 80.

“The public needs to get smarter about water,” Quan said, “and that’s the wake-up call.”

At Brown’s Beach in Stillwater, authorities identified the man who died last Thursday as Christopher Lavigne, 44, of Mechanicville.

Lavigne’s canoe capsized due to windy conditions, authorities said.

He spent his last day fishing.

“A hard worker and conscientious,” reads his obituary, “Chris loved the solitude and the challenge of fishing wherever there was a body of water.”

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