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Florida reports a record rise in child drownings for 2021. The pandemic may be a contributor

Drowning is the top preventable cause of death in the Tampa Bay area.
U.S. Navy
Twenty-four of those children drowned in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Hernando, Sarasota and Manatee counties.

In 2021, there were 98 deaths, up from 69 in 2020. This includes 24 in the greater Tampa Bay region.

Florida hit a grim new record in 2021, reporting the most child drownings since at least 2009.

The Florida Department of Children and Families report shows that deaths rose from 69 in 2020 to 98 in 2021. Twenty-four of those children drowned in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Hernando, Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Florida "loses more children under the age of 5 to drowning than any other state in the nation," according to the department.

Petra Stanton is the supervisor of Safe Kids, a coalition of health and safety experts, at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. She said Florida has a high amount of these tragedies because the state is both surrounded by water and dense with water.

The increase in deaths is worrisome, Stanton said.

"It is always a tragedy when we lose children to any cause, particularly to drowning, and particularly because there's water everywhere, she said. “We hope this trend doesn't continue.”

The pandemic may have contributed to the rise in deaths, she added.

"I know we saw a spike when COVID first started and there were shutdowns. So when children are at home, and maybe a parent is working, they possibly might be distracted, etc."

Parents might have more on their plate — like keeping an eye on two children or Zoom calls — and these circumstances might lead to "unsupervised access to the pool," she said.

"I don't want it to be confused with these parents were negligent at that time. Because sometimes it's just a distraction or the new way of life we live," Stanton said.

In addition, she said, the increase must also take into account that a lot of people are moving to Florida and "may not be aware of the dangers of water. "

Stanton adds it’s "crucial and vital" to understand that drowning is silent.

“There’s a huge misperception of what drowning looks like,” she said. “So typically in the movies it’s almost like the scene from "Jaws" where somebody’s waving their hands and they’re screaming. But typically when a child falls into the pool, they go under and they try to come up, but when their face or head comes up they gasp for air and go back down.”

Stanton recommends parents follow “five layers of protection” — supervision that includes keeping children within arms reach while in the water, making sure that door locks are high enough out of children’s reach or have an alarm, keeping a 4-foot fence around pools, removing furniture around the pool and taking their kids to swim lessons.

“They all work together,” she said. "It’s not like if you do one layer, you don’t have to do the other four layers."

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Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.