Of all the sad statistics the U.S. has dealt with this past year and a half, here is a particularly difficult one: A new study estimates that more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent or a grandparent caregiver to COVID-19. The majority of these children come from racial and ethnic minority groups.
"This means that for every four COVID-19 deaths, one child was left behind without a mother, father and/or a grandparent who provided for that child's home needs and nurture — needs such as love, security and daily care," says Susan Hillis, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and lead author of the new study.
The study, which was published Thursday in the journal Pediatrics, estimated the number of losses from April 1, 2020, through the end of June 2021 at 140,000. And that number has risen in the past three months: Hillis estimates it is around 175,000 today.
"This number will continue to grow as long as our pandemic deaths increase," Hillis says.
These children are going to need support
Once a child loses their parent or primary caregiver, Hillis says, the tragedy is something they live with for "the entire duration of their childhoods."
It's a situation that calls for urgent action, Hillis notes. These children need "understanding, help, support," she says. And it's important "to ensure that they have a safe and loving family to continue to support their needs and nurture."
And, just as COVID-19 has killed more people in communities of color, children in these communities are the most impacted by the loss of parents and primary caregivers.
"Sixty-five percent of all children experiencing COVID-associated orphanhood or death of their primary caregiver are of racial and ethnic minority," says Hillis. "That is such an extreme disparity."
The study defines orphanhood as the death of one or both parents. The study also tracked the loss of caregiving grandparents.
And if you look more closely at individual groups, American Indian and Alaska Native children were 4.5 times more likely to have lost a primary caregiver compared with white children. Black children were 2.4 times more likely and Hispanic children almost twice as likely.
Losing a parent or caregiver in childhood is a significant trauma. The study notes that this type of adverse childhood experience "may result in profound long-term impact on health and well-being for children."
"Adverse childhood experiences are associated with increased risks of every major cause of death in adulthood," says Hillis.
Losing a parent has other long-term effects
And in the short term, the impact of losing a parent or primary caregiver can lead to mental health crises for kids, including increased suicide risk, Hillis says, and "increased exposure to sexual, physical and emotional violence and exploitation."
And in terms of life outcomes, a body of earlier research shows that losing a parent can put kids at a higher risk of economic, food and housing insecurity.
This adds a new layer of risk to kids in communities of color, which are already disadvantaged.
These communities experience inequities in access to health care, housing, education, and other factors that contribute to children's well-being, says Dr. Warren Ng, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who primarily works with kids in communities of color.
"The numbers don't tell the full stories," he says. "The full story is really in the lives and the affected future of these children and adolescents and their families."
Many children didn't even get to say goodbye
Mental health care providers who are seeing the mental health effects of the pandemic on kids say these losses are particularly traumatic. Ng says even grieving has been difficult for them — many didn't even get to see their parents or grandparents in the hospital, or say goodbye.
"One of the things that's unique about the pandemic is that it's also not only deprived us of a loved one, but it's also deprived us of our opportunities that come together, so that families can heal, [and] support one another in order to really get through the most difficult times of life," he says.
The study authors also call for policy action. "What we are proposing is that there be serious consideration to adding a fourth pillar to our COVID response, and that fourth pillar would be called care for children," says Hillis.
This would involve finding resources and coming up with systems for "finding the children, assessing how they are doing and linking them to appropriate care," she says, and strengthening economic support for families who care for the children.
The data highlighted here, especially the racial and ethnic inequities, "really does demand an urgent and effective response for all children," Hillis says.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We report next on an effort to count how many children have suffered a devastating loss in the pandemic. The study by the journal Pediatrics estimated how many kids lost a parent or a grandparent caregiver to COVID-19.
NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is here. Good morning.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: I just want to note - one kid losing a parent is traumatic. How many...
INSKEEP: ...Kids have had that experience from COVID?
CHATTERJEE: So the study estimates it's 140,000. And that's not the full number. That was only until the end of June. We're now in October - so even more from the recent delta wave.
CHATTERJEE: I spoke with author Susan Hillis, an epidemiologist at the CDC and an author of the study. She estimates that right now we're talking about 175,000 kids orphaned by the pandemic. And to be clear, the study defines orphan as losing one or two parents.
SUSAN HILLIS: This means that for every four COVID-19 deaths, one child was left behind without a mother, father and/or grandparent who provided for that child's home, needs and nurture.
CHATTERJEE: And the longer the pandemic continues, the more kids will be affected.
INSKEEP: Now, we should note this affects people of every race, of every demographic description. But as in so many other things, there's a disproportionate effect among communities of color.
CHATTERJEE: Yeah. And it's the same with this as well. Here's the exact breakdown from Hillis.
HILLIS: Sixty-five percent of all children experiencing COVID-associated orphanhood or death of their primary caregiver are of racial and ethnic minority. That is such an extreme disparity.
CHATTERJEE: And if you look closer at individual groups, Steve, American Indian and Alaska Native kids were 4.5 times more likely to have lost a primary caregiver when compared to white kids - Black kids, 2.4 times more likely, and Hispanic kids, almost twice as likely.
INSKEEP: I suppose - is there some possibility of estimating the impact on these kids?
CHATTERJEE: Well, we know from past studies that losing a parent can put a kid at higher risk of economic, food and housing insecurity, especially when we're talking about communities of color, which are already disadvantaged. And mental health care providers are already seeing the emotional impacts.
Dr. Warren Ng is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Columbia University working primarily with kids in communities of color. He says even grieving has been difficult for them. Many didn't even get to see their parent in the hospital or say goodbye.
WARREN NG: They weren't able to go to a funeral. There wasn't really the same set of, I think, rituals and structures that are intended to help support people through a difficult process.
CHATTERJEE: So that obviously compounds the impact on the kids.
INSKEEP: Some people will be asking, what can I do?
CHATTERJEE: Support is key. So making sure kids remain in loving and supportive families will be key. But the problem is there's no systematic way of finding these kids and getting them the care they need.
INSKEEP: NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee, thanks so much.
CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.