Water safety and air quality awareness as we near the start of summer

Nationally, unintentional drownings increased in pandemic, especially among young children

A smoky skyline
Hazy conditions looking toward downtown St. Paul after the wildfire smoke moved the evening of May 12.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Memorial Day weekend – the unofficial start of summer – is just over one week away, and with that Minnesotans will be starting to spend more time near the state’s numerous bodies of water, including community and backyard pools. This is, therefore, a good time to remind everyone of the importance of water safety.  

Drowning death rates increased nationally during the course of the pandemic, according to a new study that appeared in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In 2020 and 2022, the unintentional drowning rate went up by roughly 10 percent compared to 2019, and in 2021 it increased by nearly 14 percent. 

The highest rates of unintentional drowning deaths occurred among children ages 1 to 4, for whom it is the leading cause of death, during the three years in the study. The rate for children ages 1 to 4 rose significantly in 2021 and 2022 to 3.1 per 100,000, an increase of roughly 29 percent compared to 2019.   

Of the approximately 4,000 people in the U.S. who die from unintentional drowning annually, young children are not the only demographic group to experience disproportionate impacts. '

The study also notes that non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native and non-Hispanic Black or African American people had drowning rates that were among the highest over the three analyzed years. And Black Americans saw significant increases in drowning rates in 2020 and 2021 compared to 2019.  

Based on recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics Rapid Surveys System, the study also estimated that 40 million adult Americans, or just over 15 percent of survey respondents, do not know how to swim, and over half of all American adults have never taken swimming lessons. These percentages were significantly higher among Black and Hispanic American adults. 

The study’s authors stress the importance of water safety skills training and swimming education. But they also note the structural barriers that exist that prevent some of the most disproportionately impacted groups from accessing such training.

Check out the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ boat and water safety page for good safety advice, and this page on water safety from the regional American Red Cross office.  

Likely another active wildfire season ahead, but 2024 off to better start than 2023

Another seasonal risk as we head into summer: bad air quality. On Monday, air pollution from fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the Twin Cities was the worst it’s been since last June.

The average PM2.5 air quality index (AQI) of three monitors in Minneapolis and St. Paul was 129, according to an analysis from the APM Research Lab. That’s in the category of “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” The worst day last year, June 14, hit an AQI of 178. That’s in the category of unhealthy for everyone.  

The cause for the pollution, both last year and this week, was smoke from Canadian wildfires. Warmer and drier than normal conditions this spring have Canadian officials warning that it could be another active wildfire season this year.  

Air quality could also be affected by local wildfires. The U.S. National Interagency Fire Center is predicting an above normal chance for “significant wildland fire potential” in northern Minnesota in June, thanks to drought conditions and a forecast for less rain than normal later this month.  

And the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said this summer is likely to have more air quality alerts than normal, but it’s unlikely to be as bad as last year. For tips on how to stay healthy when bad air quality strikes, listen to this segment from Minnesota Now from earlier this week.  

Despite the poor conditions earlier this week, air quality so far this year is off to a much better start than last year. The average fine particulate matter air quality index in the Twin Cities each month this year has been at or below the levels the same time last year.  

And now a look at the latest data on respiratory illnesses, which appear to be waning for the season (at least for now).  

As cool season ends, severe respiratory illnesses are on the decline 

Influenza and respiratory syncytial virus hospitalization rates continued to fall in the latest data available from the Minnesota Department of Health. COVID-19 hospitalizations stayed essentially flat after falling every week since the peak this winter in the last week of December.

COVID-19 hospitalizations inched out influenza hospitalizations for the first time since February. 

It’s hard to predict whether that means COVID may soon be on the rise again. Each winter has seen a peak in COVID-19 hospitalizations, but the seasonal patterns in other months have been less well defined.

There was an increase in hospitalizations around this time in 2022, followed by a summer-long ‘high plateau’ of hospitalizations. Last year, however, hospitalizations stayed low through the first part of summer, not beginning to rise again until August and not substantially until later in the fall. 

One of the best measures we do have to monitor COVID-19's spread is wastewater. COVID-19 levels in Minnesota wastewater decreased 12 percent statewide over the prior week, as of May 8, according to the latest data from the University of Minnesota’s on-going Wastewater Surveillance Study.

Looking back over the prior month, COVID-19 wastewater levels decreased 51 percent statewide.  

The study’s South East region was the only one to see an increase in COVID-19 wastewater levels over the prior week, and all of the study’s regions saw four-week declines in COVID-19 wastewater levels.  

Statewide COVID-19 levels are at their lowest point since last August.  

Overall up-to-date vaccination level still low using new definition  

The Minnesota Department of Health released updated vaccine data this week. Not many additional people have been vaccinated since last month’s update. The statewide vaccination rate went from 13.1 percent last month to 13.6 percent this month.  

In March, the department updated its definition of up-to-date vaccination to require two 2023-24 COVID-19 vaccines for those 65 and older, up from just one dose previously. 

Using that new definition, around five percent of those aged 65 and older are up to date. That’s down from nearly 60 percent using the previous definition of one recent dose.  

The county leading the state with up-to-date vaccinations is Olmsted, home of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, at 24.4 percent.  More details about vaccination rates are available on the APM Research Lab site.  

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