Firefighters and water safety advocates fear the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to a troubling spike in pediatric drownings in the East Valley and Maricopa County by introducing more distractions into an already dangerous scenario.
The pandemic closed schools in March, hampering efforts by the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona to drive home an annually repeated safety campaign to watch children with undivided attention around water.
While most drowning prevention events were cancelled, parents found themselves dealing with the new distraction of working from home, juggling time on laptops with the need to watch their children and avoid potentially fatal trips to a backyard pool.
“As soon as COVID hit and we saw that more kids were staying home, we knew our numbers were going up,’’ said Tracey Fejt, trauma outreach injury prevention coordinator for Banner Cardon Children’s Hospital in Mesa.
“The distraction is huge. They are trying to work,’’ Fejt said.
Mesa has recorded three pediatric drownings this year, compared with two a year ago. The city has recorded 17 water-related incidents, with 10 of them involving pediatric children less than six years old, according to the Children’s Safety Zone website.
In all, there are have been nine fatalities, with six of them adults. No one wants to see the tragic record of six pediatric drownings in 2007 repeated ever again.
In Maricopa and Pinal counties, the same pattern becomes apparent. The website lists 70 water-related incidents through July 13, involving 36 pediatrics, two children, two teens and 24 adults. It lists 29 deaths, with nine of them pediatric and 20 of them adults.
Firefighters and drowning prevention advocates are alarmed because there were five pediatric drownings recorded in Maricopa and Pinal counties all of last year, according to the website.
In all, there were 150 water-related incidents in the two counties during 2019, involving 72 pediatric-aged children and 63 adults. The website recorded 30 adult deaths and one teenager’s death.
The non-fatal drowning incidents are essentially close calls, where deaths were prevented by someone noticing a victim under water and rendering assistance in time to save them.
“I think what we’re starting to see is that there is more opportunity (for tragedy) and we need the ABC’s of water safety,’’ said Deputy Gilbert Fire Chief Mark Justus. “The number one advice is awareness, knowing where your kids are.’’
Many longtime Valley residents probably have memorized the ABCs of drowning prevention: – A for adult, B for barriers and C for swimming classes and lifejackets.
Chandler Fire Department officials have toughened their water safety messaging, Battalion Chief Jeff West said. A child drowned earlier this year and two others were involved in water-related incidents.
“We can list the messages and we can recite them, but what are you doing to prevent drownings? This life is on you,’’ West said. “We put the emphasis on those with the ability to prevent’’ fatal and non-fatal drownings.
However, some of these close calls leave behind a lifetime of pain, deficits, anxiety and even guilt.
Gilbert has been fortunate so far, with six water-related incidents and no fatalities. But there have been five non-fatal incidents involving pediatric children and one involving an adult.
“These families are the best resource I have to deliver that message. They understand,’’ Justus said. He has dealt with families who have experienced the ultimate loss, the loss of a child in a drowning that is usually preventable.
“I have looked in their eyes. They would give you everything they have to take back that tragedy,’’ he said, and the non-fatal drownings should not be confused with having no impact on a family.
Justus also has seen the medical consequences of having oxygen cut off from the brain, even if it miraculously wasn’t long enough to kill someone.
“These are things that can affect them for weeks, months, or their entire lifetime. Even though they survived it doesn’t mean they are out of the woods,’’ he said.
Fejt and Melissa Sutton, the coalition’s president, are worried that the trend is heading in the wrong direction after years of progress on the drowning issue.
“Because of COVID, we were unable to reach the community as we have in the past,’’ Sutton said.
She said one of the few drowning prevention events was in Chandler in June, when the police and fire departments staged a mini-parade of public service vehicles at several schools. The coalition passed out safety literature and extolled the necessity of drowning prevention.
“We are seeing an uptick here. Parents are now home. The kids are now home. The parent has to take a Zoom call or to get that report done,’’ Sutton said. “We’re seeing the repercussions of it.’’
“The kids are usually in the care of someone else,’’ such as attending a summer camp, she said. “Those things are not happening right now.’’
One disturbing trend Fejt has noted is that about half of the pediatric incidents involved children wearing “floaties,’’ cheap inflatable devices that are considered unreliable toys rather than true floatation devices, such as lifejackets.
“They are cheap and parents have a false sense of security,’’ Fejt said.
Although lifejackets can cost $30 compared with a $6 floatie, parents need to consider the overwhelming consequences of potentially losing a child’s life before pinching pennies on safety devices, she said.
Nothing takes the place of adequate adult supervision, including a “water-watcher’’ whose sole job is to watch children in the water without interruption for about 20-minute intervals. The ideal is to have sober adults take turns giving children their undivided attention, similar to a lifeguard.
“It’s hard to keep your eyes on a child 24-7,’’ Fejt said, making barriers such as pool fences and extra-attentive supervision vital.
A tragic Mesa drowning of a 2 ½ year-old boy earlier this month demonstrates Fejt’s argument for the importance of water watchers, although her focus is always on saving other children and not on being judgmental.
Mesa police said the tragedy occurred at a family party, at the child’s grandparents’ home.
“They were eating and realized the child was missing. That’s when they found the child in the pool,’’ said Detective Jason Flam, a Mesa police spokesman.
The boy was pulled from the bottom of the pool and family members administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but it was sadly too late to save him, despite their best efforts, police said.
Authorities were hopeful when it appeared the child was breathing on his own, but his condition worsened after he was taken to the hospital and he eventually was pronounced dead.
Mesa Deputy Fire Chief Forrest Smith said he believes the combination of more children at home, with more parents working from home, is contributing to an already chronic problem.
He said distractions, such as a parent working on a computer, can cause tragic consequences very quickly.
Firefighters are sounding a warning that undivided supervision – and barriers to compensate for predictable human failings in watching children – have never been more important.
“We have to talk about with injuries to children, a lot of it is a lapse in adult supervision,’’ Smith said. “The only reason that we have fences is because we don’t have the ability to just stare at kids.’’
He said it can be frustrating for firefighters to know how to reach people about the importance of water safety as they see the tragic consequences year after year of preventable deaths.
“We struggle at determining what message is impacting people,’’ Smith said.