As Drowning Deaths Doubled in King County in 2020, Water Safety Is More Important Than Ever

With hot summer days comes an increased desire to cool off in the region’s pools, beaches, rivers, and lakes. But in 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic pushed more people towards outdoor activities, King County saw drowning deaths double compared to 2018. Thirty-three people lost their lives in King County waters last year, nearly 70% of which occurred in open water incidents and drowning continues to be the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children and teens.  

“Drowning is a 100% preventable tragedy,” said Tony Gomez, Public Health’s Violence and Injury Prevention Manager.  “Learn to swim, swim where there are lifeguards, wear a lifejacket, obey safety signs, follow boating safety rules, and intentionally plan for water safety to safely cool off, get some exercise, and have fun this summer!”

Choose to swim where there is a lifeguard

Even for the most seasoned swimmer, drowning can happen quickly and without notice. Lifeguards are trained to recognize when swimmers are in distress and react quickly to save lives. Luckily, we have many guarded swim areas within King County. Check Public Health’s water safety website to see which areas will be guarded this summer and when.

Wear a lifejacket

Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved lifejacket when boating, tubing, rafting, swimming, or doing other water-related activities, especially when a lifeguard is not present. Of the 23 open water drowning deaths in 2020, the majority could have been prevented if the individual had been wearing a lifejacket.  If you don’t own a lifejacket, check out the Washington State life jacket loaner program locations where you can borrow one for free.

A tuber, kayaker, and swimmer sport their lifejackets while safely enjoying the Snoqualmie River.
A tuber, kayaker, and swimmer sport their lifejackets while safely enjoying the Snoqualmie River

Learn to swim and strengthen safety skills

To enjoy water safely, it is important to become comfortable in the water by practicing swim strokes, floating, and treading in the pool before hitting open water. Some lifeguarded beaches in King County offer free or reduced-price swim lessons and some local pools have scholarships for swim lessons. Learning first aid and CPR can also reduce the risk of drowning death and better the chances of recovery.

Steer clear of alcohol or drugs during water activities

Over half of King County drowning deaths in 2020 involved alcohol and/or drugs – a 167% increase compared to the previous four years. These substances affect balance, coordination and judgement, and exposure to sun and heat and being on a boat can worsen these effects. Designate a sober water-safety supervisor to keep a watchful eye on kids near water. This means close touch distance to get them quickly if something happens.

Be extra cautious on rivers

River water can be high, fast, and contain hidden rocks and logs, making rivers extremely dangerous and unpredictable places to recreate. Nine lives were lost in King County rivers in 2020 and drowning dangers could be even higher this year. While Washington formed a healthy snowpack after the snowiest winter in 20 years, the recent heat wave has our above-average snowpack melting at record pace. As snow rapidly melts, rivers surge and the risk of drowning posed by raging water spikes. Avoiding dangerously swollen rivers is safest, but if river recreation is your only outdoor option, always wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket and go with licensed river guides, if possible.

For more information and additional resources:

Originally posted 6/24/21