One U.S. child loses a parent or caregiver for every four COVID-19 deaths, a new modeling study published in Pediatrics reveals and reported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a press release. The findings illustrate orphanhood as a hidden and ongoing secondary tragedy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasizes that identifying and caring for these children throughout their development is a necessary and urgent part of the pandemic response – both for as long as the pandemic continues, as well as in the post-pandemic era.
From April 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021, data suggest that more than 140,000 children under age 18 in the United States lost a parent, custodial grandparent, or grandparent caregiver who provided the child’s home and basic needs, including love, security, and daily care. Overall, the study shows that approximately 1 out of 500 children in the United States has experienced COVID-19-associated orphanhood or death of a grandparent caregiver.
There were racial, ethnic, and geographic disparities in COVID-19-associated death of caregivers: children of racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 65% of those who lost a primary caregiver due to the pandemic.
Children’s lives are permanently changed by the loss of a mother, father, or grandparent who provided their homes, basic needs, and care. Loss of a parent is among the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) linked to mental health problems; shorter schooling; lower self-esteem; sexual risk behaviors; and increased risk of substance abuse, suicide, violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation.
“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. “All of us – especially our children – will feel the serious immediate and long-term impact of this problem for generations to come. Addressing the loss that these children have experienced – and continue to experience – must be one of our top priorities, and it must be woven into all aspects of our emergency response, both now and in the post-pandemic future.”
The study was a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Imperial College London, Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Published in the Oct. 7 issue of the journal Pediatrics, it was jointly led by CDC’s COVID Response and Imperial College London, and partly funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as Imperial College London.
The study authors estimate that 120,630 children in the U.S. lost a primary caregiver, (a parent or grandparent responsible for providing housing, basic needs and care) due to COVID-19-associated death. In addition, 22,007 children experienced the death of a secondary caregiver (grandparents providing housing but not most basic needs). Overall, 142,637 children are estimated to have experienced the death of at least one parent, or a custodial or other co-residing grandparent caregiver.
There were significant racial and ethnic disparities in caregiver deaths due to COVID-19. White people represent 61% of the total U.S. population and people of racial and ethnic minorities represent 39% of the total population. Yet, study results indicate that non-Hispanic White children account for 35% of those who lost a primary caregiver (51,381 children), while children of racial and ethnic minorities account for 65% of those who lost a primary caregiver (91,256 children).
When looking at both primary and secondary caregivers, the study found that findings varied greatly by race/ethnicity: 1 of every 168 American Indian/Alaska Native children, 1 of every 310 Black children, 1 of every 412 Hispanic children, 1 of every 612 Asian children, and 1 of every 753 White children experienced orphanhood or death of caregivers. 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 2.4 times more likely, and Hispanic children were nearly 2 times (1.8) more likely.
In the closing words of the paper, “Effective action to reduce health disparities and protect children from direct and secondary harms from COVID-19 is a public health and moral imperative.”