Pandemic contributing to rise in drownings on open water, say experts

A drowning prevention expert says the COVID-19 pandemic and Ottawa's record-hot July have both contributed to shifts in where people are getting into trouble on the water — and it might be time to change safety messaging.

5 people have drowned on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River this summer

Ottawa has seen five deaths this year from drowning, and one drowning prevention expert says it's time to change the focus of water safety messaging from swimming pools to open water. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

A drowning prevention expert says the COVID-19 pandemic and Ottawa's record-hot July have both contributed to shifts in where people are getting into trouble on the water — and it might be time to change safety messaging.

There has been a string of recent drownings in Ottawa, and officials say the vast majority of them are occurring in open water, not at backyard swimming pools or supervised beaches.

"I think this is where we need to change our focus," said Chris Wagg, chair of the Ottawa Drowning Prevention Coalition.

"I think people are really understanding the basis of backyard pool safety ... we really need to focus in on our rivers."

5 drownings in Ottawa 

There have been five drownings in Ottawa in 2020, and all five happened on the Ottawa River.

In June, a two-year-old boy was pronounced dead after he was pulled from the water at Petrie Island.

Then in July, a 20-year-old man drowned while swimming with friends at Britannia Beach and a 14-year-old boy died after jumping into the water off the Prince of Wales Bridge — both on the same weekend.

The bodies of two fishermen were also recovered in recent days, after they disappeared off of Bate Island on July 31. 

There have also been numerous drownings elsewhere in the region, including at Sandbanks Provincial Park, North Beach Provincial Park, and Dalhousie Lake.

Firefighters pulled a two-year-old boy from the Ottawa River near Petrie Island early in the evening of June 16, 2020. He was later pronounced dead. (Olivier Plante/Radio Canada)

The number of drownings this year in Ontario is not significantly higher than it was at this time in 2019. As of Aug. 4, there had been 61 drownings, compared to 59 last year.

It has been a devastating year for drownings on the Quebec side, however, with 60 deaths by Aug. 4, compared to 46 last year, according to data from the coalition. 

Occurred after lockdowns

The startling thing, said Wagg, is that a lot of those deaths happened during a short period of time after people emerged from pandemic lockdowns.

Prevented from travelling, and with access to public pools limited, many people turned to rivers, Wagg said. 

It also didn't help that this was the hottest July in Ottawa since 1921.

"That's why we're seeing a lot of river drownings. [It's] because of it being so hot, and accessibility to the pools is restricted," said Wagg, noting municipal pools can only operate at about one-sixth capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions.

"What we have seen is groups of young people jumping off of bridges, swimming in groups late at night."

Here’s how to stay safe on the water this summer

3 years ago
Duration 1:50
After several open-water drowning deaths this summer, Ottawa police and fire officials are urging residents to pay attention to water safety. Const. Caroline Gallant, with the Ottawa Police Service, and Carson Tharris, public information officer for Ottawa Fire Services, spoke to CBC News.

Young men, new Canadians at risk

Wagg said the coalition has also noticed a general trend, not necessarily connected to the pandemic, of more drownings and near-drownings among new Canadians and young men.

"We grow up in Canada with recreational swimming as part of what we do. Whereas in other countries, that's not the way," she said.

Wagg said the coalition has attended citizenship ceremonies and English-as-a-second-language classes to connect with new Canadians and discuss swimming lessons and water safety. They've also created flash cards with water safety messages in 20 languages. 

Reaching young men between the ages of 18 and 24, however, can be more challenging, said Wagg. 

"They are higher risk for speeding in cars, taking risks with swimming, pushing the boundaries," she said. "So that's always an age group that's hard for us to reach."

Fire crews search the Ottawa River near Bate Island for two missing men on July 31, 2020. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

'The water is relentless'

Local paramedics are also concerned by the trends.

"The water is relentless. It won't give you a break," said André Mollema, public information officer with the Ottawa Paramedic Service. 

Drowning prevention in Ottawa needs a change in focus, advocate says

3 years ago
Duration 0:49
Chris Wagg, chair of Ottawa Drowning Prevention Coalition, says water safety education has long focused on backyard pools. But with more drownings happening in open water this year, she says it’s time to focus on river safety.

"You can't simply tap out. You have a cramp, you are no longer capable of swimming, [you might not] resurface. Or, if you have to swim after it gets dark, well, that person that you're with loses sight of you, and no one's there to immediately provide assistance."

Mollema said the service has also noted a drastic increase in calls on rivers, lakes and ponds.

"This year they're happening more in the open water," he said. "This year, for sure, we're seeing [more calls] in open water environments."

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