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Advocates Report A Rise In Drownings As Pandemic Cancels In-Person Swim Lessons In Fort Worth

A little girl uses a swimming noodle to float in a scene from the FWDPC's YouTube video.
A little girl uses a swimming noodle to float in a scene from the FWDPC's YouTube video.

Will it sink, or will it float?

That’s the question Julie Jackson asked about all kinds of foods —a marshmallow, a lemon, a Cutie orange —as she tested each one in a vase of water. It was an experiment for one of the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition's (FWDPC) free Zoom sessions.

Jackson is the FWDPC’s lead trainer, and she uses the foods to build up to a point about the importance of life jackets.

She brings out two eggs, each wrapped in its own little life jacket —in this case, a Cutie peel. One egg has plenty of peel coverage, and floats. The other doesn’t, and sinks.

"That right there is the difference of how important it is to get the right size of life vest for you," Jackson said.

It’s the type of kid-friendly illustration the FWDPC is using to try to get some water safety tips to families during a pandemic summer, when the organization can’t host its usual in-person, low-cost swim lessons and safety classes for kids and adults.

The pandemic isn’t just affecting swim lessons —  it also might be heightening the risk of drowning. That’s especially alarming in Texas, which regularly leads the nation in drowning deaths.

From January to July 20, the ambulance service MedStar, which operates in Fort Worth and 14 surrounding cities, had responded to 23 drowning cases, 44% more than last year during the same period. 

MedStar defines a drowning as any underwater submersion that results in severe difficulty breathing or loss of consciousness. Drownings can be fatal or non-fatal.

FWDPC Executive Director Chelsea Miller connected the pandemic to the increase.

“The city, for example, has not opened the city pools this summer, and the YMCA delayed their opening of their pools,” she said. “That's lifeguarded bodies of water that weren't open, and so people congregated to unlifeguarded areas."

MedStar spokesperson Matt Zavadsky said the spike in drowning cases happened shortly after stay-at-home orders were lifted, and he hypothesized people were so excited to get out, they weren’t as careful as they would be normally.

“Interestingly, we’ve also seen the majority of the drowning victims being adults,” he said.

Usually, drowning victims tend to be children, Zavadsky explained. He added that his data only covers the calls MedStar responds to.

“It’s likely that if MedStar is seeing this 44% increase in the number of drowning cases, that many other communities are seeing the same thing,” he said.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKgCvm0DMFw&t=4s

The FWDPC laid out five basic tips for water safety in a short video:

  1. Size up the scene. Assess how many people and floats a backyard pool can hold. Is there a lifeguard on duty, or an adult whose only job is to watch the pool?
  2. Know the physical limits of the swimmers you’re watching, and make sure they take breaks.
  3. Set expectations with kids. You must be able to see each other at all times, and wear life jackets.
  4. Be emergency ready. Know the address of the place you’re swimming at, and only use your phone for emergencies. (Zavadsky said that some locations can be difficult for emergency crews to access, so keep that in mind, too.)
  5. Never swim alone, no matter what your skill level is.


Ta'Neisha Kemp takes drowning prevention seriously. In past years, she drove 30 minutes from her home in Rhome to Fort Worth for FWDPC’s swim lessons. Now, her kids tune into the online classes.

"I say it's like CPR. You wanna have the education about drowning prevention, you just hope you never have to use it. But you still have to practice," Kemp said.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org . You can follow Miranda on Twitter @mirandarsuarez .

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