More than 140,000 U.S. children lost a parent, grandparent or other caregiver to COVID-19, a study found, with researchers noting significant racial and ethnic disparities and calling for a focused effort to protect kids’ mental health and well-being.
The federally funded findings, published in the Pediatrics journal, resulted from a collaboration between Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers and several universities, and included data from April 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, finding that about 1 in 500 U.S. kids have been affected by COVID-associated orphanhood.
The loss of a parent or grandparent who provides care and basic needs can increase children’s risk of poor mental health and self-esteem and give way to substance abuse, suicide, violence and sexual abuse, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
"Children facing orphanhood as a result of COVID is a hidden, global pandemic that has sadly not spared the United States," said Susan Hillis, CDC researcher and lead author of the study, in an NIH news release posted Thursday. "All of us – especially our children – will feel the serious immediate and long-term impact of this problem for generations to come."
Hillis stressed that addressing children's losses should be one of the top priorities amid the pandemic and post-pandemic response.
The team of researchers conducted the study by analyzing mortality, fertility and census data across the U.S. and for each state, with COVID-19-associated deaths referring to both direct and indirect causes, like COVID-19 disease or lockdowns, reduced quality of health care and disease treatment. Results indicated about 120,630 U.S. children lost a parent or grandparent who provided basic needs and care, whereas another 22,007 kids lost a secondary caregiver, or grandparents offering housing but not basic needs, per the release.
"The death of a parental figure is an enormous loss that can reshape a child’s life," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "We must work to ensure that all children have access to evidence-based prevention interventions that can help them navigate this trauma, to support their future mental health and wellbeing."
"At the same time, we must address the many underlying inequities and health disparities that put people of color at greater risk of getting COVID-19 and dying from COVID-19, which puts children of color at a greater risk of losing a parent or caregiver and related adverse effects on their development," Volkow added.
Researchers found significant disparities; while White individuals comprise 61% of the population and minorities make up 39% of the population, White children accounted for 35% of those who lost a primary caregiver, whereas kids of racial and ethnic minorities comprised 65% of those who lost a caregiver.
Compared to White children, American Indian/Alaska Native children were 4.5 times more likely to lose a parent or grandparent caregiver. Black children were associated with a 2.4-times greater likelihood of losing a parent or grandparent when compared with White children, while Hispanic children faced a 1.8-times greater likelihood, the release reads.