July 17, 2020

Pools are closed. Splash pads are dry. Movie theaters are dark. Air conditioned malls and libraries are vacant. 

Talia Reasoner takes her family to play in the Sandy River, and she teaches them how to play safely.

As Oregonians try to control a spike in cases of COVID-19, families across Multnomah County are heading into a summer void of those classic ways to beat the heat. And as temperatures rise, health officials worry that puts more kids and young people at risk from drowning as they head to area lakes and rivers.

No lifeguards will watch over swimmers this summer at Glen Otto Park on the Sandy River or at High Rocks Park on the Clackamas River. And with no pools and few camps open, this spring and summer has been the busiest in years on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, says Multnomah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Dangler of  the River Patrol unit. 

Cold, moving water in rivers and lakes can pose a risk to anyone, but children can be vulnerable to drowning even in their own homes. With more parents than ever working remotely, kids playing in backyard wading pools can get into trouble in just a few inches of water.

Accidents are a leading cause of death among children.

“Water safety is a concern every year, but the risk may be magnified this summer as people take to national bodies of water with no lifeguards,” said Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. “And this is preventable. We need adults to be really aware of these risks and make sure to assign someone to watch kids closely anytime they’re near water.”

Enjoy the outdoors

Talia Reasoner, who is Native American, said she was taught to love the water but respect its power. 

She’s raising her three kids the same way.

“Our upbringing and traditions play a huge role in how we interact with water and our environment,” she said. “It’s part of our lifestyle, to pray to the water, and we remind our children that water is sacred. We were constantly talking about water and reminding each other about the importance of water. But you have to have that respect.”

Reasoner takes her kids to play on the Sandy River near their home, and each time begins the same way: She ventures in first to test the speed and temperature, while the kids remain on the shore. And she tells them each to be careful and watches as they slip on their life jackets. 

And she keeps watching while they play. The whole time. 

[High resolution images of Reasoner family modeling safe water play]

“As a parent you don't let your guard down. You might want to soak up the sun, but you can’t let your guard down,” she said. “And as we are dealing with a pandemic, it’s more important to be present right now. We are so worried about other things that now might be a time when we let our guard down. It’s just about being present.”

Talia Reasoner's older kids, Aaliyah Reasoner and Ouray Gutierrez, play in the Sandy River, and she teaches them how to swim safely.

Monday, July 20, American Medical Response will launch a life jacket donation drive to gather new and gently-used Coastguard approved life vests for distribution to families at no cost. To learn more, email leah.gordon@amr.net.

Stay safe at home

Before COVID-19 forced social service and health providers to go virtual, Mary Antoine visited new moms in their homes as a Multnomah County Healthy Families home visitor working with Albina Head Start. Now she spends time with them over a screen or on the phone.

She helps parents navigate the first three years’ of their child’s life, sharing information on health development and connecting them to community resources. Home safety has always been part of her job. When someone comes home with a hand-me-down stroller, she advises them to check the model on Consumer Reports. When a parent learns to bathe their baby in an infant tub, she reminds them never to take their hands from the child’s body.

“You just have to be there, always keep one hand on the child at all times, aware of an accidental slip,” she said.

So when a mom bought a kiddie pool on Amazon, Antoine talked about water safety and the risk of drowning. And that lesson is even more relevant today. 

“Never leave them alone. Kids can drown with just a small amount of water,” she said. “Even in a kiddie pool, they can drown. The water should be emptied every day. Even covering it, that’s not enough.”

Any time a child plays near water, even in one of the flimsy plastic pools that fills up only one foot, they should be supervised by a responsible older person.

Full-time supervision is a challenge for working parents. Antoine said it might be OK to ask an older child to take a shift watching over younger kids, although she doesn’t recommend asking preteens to be responsible for the safety of younger children who can’t speak for themselves. And before allowing any older child to oversee outdoor play, she said, make sure they understand how to handle an emergency. 

“And regardless of that, parents need to be in close enough range that you can hear if someone yells,” Antoine said. “You can’t be in a Zoom meeting with the door closed and leave them out there.”

Tips to keep kids safe

When you are with children at a pool or open water, assign a water watcher: a responsible person who will pay constant attention. That means putting down the cell phone. 

And always avoid alcohol or other intoxicants when near the water.

At lakes and rivers

  • For young children who don’t know how to swim, always stay within “touch distance.”

  • Check out the water yourself before allowing kids to go into the water; fast currents and underwater debris may not be obvious.

  • Be aware of cold shock—which can weaken even the strongest swimmers!

  • Only allow children to enter water with permission and if they have adequate swimming skills.

  • Never swim alone & do not allow children to enter the water alone.

  • Make sure kids use a life jacket.

  • Learn CPR.

  • Keep a phone nearby to call 911.

At home

  • Assign a responsible person to supervise children any time they go outside.

  • Empty and turn over inflatable pools when they are not in use.

  • Avoid leaving out buckets or other objects that may collect water.

  • Cover or fence off any pool or hot tub; choose fencing at least 4 feet high and coverings that can support weight.