Naya Rivera and Preventable Death in the Time of Pandemic Coronavirus
The world, but particularly Americans, are living the large-scale consequences of mass noncompliance with prevention guidelines as Florida leads global COVID-19 caseloads. The same qualities apparent in those unwilling to wear masks or take other social distancing precautions are seen in those who partake in behaviors like driving under the influence or unsafe sex — health illiteracy. Naya Rivera’s death at Lake Piru was no different.
The tragic, preventable accident was just another in a long list of examples of what happens when public health recommendations are ignored. Lake Piru, located on the southern edge of Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County, California, was known to be dangerous. In a 2000 article by the Los Angeles Times, the former parks and recreation services manager Douglas West told the outlet, “there have been about a dozen drownings during his 23 years at the lake.”
Since the September 2000 death of 25-year old Eric Cruz, there have been five more drowning deaths reported by various sources, including that of Glee star Naya Rivera, for a total of 17 drownings over 43 years. These statistics, of course, do not include any near-death incidents or rescues by lifeguards, which are assumed to be greater than the fatality rate. Drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The water at Lake Piru has been described as dangerous due to the icy conditions, debris, strong currents, and 160-foot depths, which have been a deadly combination on numerous occasions. Though local officials have been aware of safety issues at the lake for at least twenty years, given the marked uptick in drownings between 1994–2000, signage at the lake has not been approved to indicate more severe safety warnings. There is a clear drive for this action: tourism.
Not unlike the first half-hour of a slasher flick, the locals know what lurks in the water, but the beach is open and no one is listening. Think: have you ever watched Jaws and blamed the victims for flocking to the beach? Probably not. Rather, your anger lies with the Mayor who let tourists crowd the beach knowing there was the risk of a shark attack.
At Lake Piru, there is no murderous shark, but the story is the same. Twenty years ago, a public health expert somewhere in Ventura County, California, offered a piece of advice not unlike countless others the public has grown numb to — don’t smoke, eat your vegetables, use a condom. Their words went unheard, and it cost lives.
If any good can come of Naya Rivera’s death, let it be the fundamental understanding of the role health educators play in preventing disease and death. And let us hope that the Venn diagram of Glee fans and mask-teetotalers is a circle, should this last week teach them more than these last four months of quarantine combined.