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COVID-19 leaves thousands of U.S. children without a parent



Approximately 40,000 children in the United States have lost a parent to COVID-19, based on data from a combination of death counts and simulation models.

Sad teen with school books, backpack dtiberio/iStock/Getty Images

The scale of mortality from COVID-19 among adults in the United States merits efforts to monitor how many children have lost a parent as a result of the pandemic, wrote Rachel Kidman, PhD, of Stony Brook (N.Y.) University and colleagues.

In a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the researchers used kinship networks of White and Black individuals in the United States to estimate parental bereavement. They combined deaths from COVID-19 as of February 2021 and combined them with excess deaths, and estimated future bereavement based on a herd immunity scenario.

Overall, the model suggested that each death from COVID-19 results in potential parental bereavement for 0.78 children aged 0-17 years, representing an increase of 17.5%-20.2% in parental bereavement. The model indicated that, as of February 2021, 37,337 children aged 0-17 years had lost a parent to COVID-19, including 11,366 children age 0-9 years and 31,661 children and teens aged 10-17 years. A total of 20,600 of these children were non-Hispanic White and 7,600 were Black. Black children accounted for 20% of the bereaved children, although they account for approximately 14% of children aged 0-17 years in the United States, the researchers noted.

Including the excess death estimate, which refers to the difference between observed and expected deaths for the remainder of the pandemic, raised the total bereaved children to 43,000. A future mortality scenario using a total of 1,500,000 deaths from COVID-19 based on a natural herd immunity strategy increased the total estimate of bereaved children to 116,922.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the lack of data on nonparental primary caregivers, and the use of demographic models rather than survey or administrative data, the researchers noted.

However, the huge number of children who have experienced the death of a parent because of COVID-19 emphasizes the need for reforms to address health, educational, and economic impacts of this mass bereavement on children and teens, they said.

“Parentally bereaved children will also need targeted support to help with grief, particularly during this period of heightened social isolation,” they emphasized.

Establishment of a national child bereavement cohort could identify children early in the bereavement process to help ensure that they are connected to local supportive care and monitored for health and behavior problems, the researchers said. In addition, such a cohort could be used as a basis for a longitudinal study of the impact of mass parental bereavement during a unique period of social isolation and economic uncertainty, they concluded.

Study spotlights gaps in mental health care

The study is an important reminder of how COVID-19 has disrupted children’s lives, said Herschel Lessin, MD, of Children’s Medical Group in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in an interview. Losing a parent because of COVID-19 is one more tragedy on the list of social and emotional disasters the pandemic has wrought on children, he said.

“There has to be some sort of national response to help children through all of this, not just one item at a time,” Dr. Lessin said. However, the management of children’s mental health in the United States has been subpar for decades, he noted, with few clinicians trained to specialize in treating behavioral and mental health issues in children. Consequently, more general pediatricians will continue to be faced with the mental health issues of bereaved children who desperately need support, he said.

Money remains a key barrier, as it keeps qualified clinicians from entering the field of pediatric mental and behavioral health, and even where there are mental health providers, most do not take insurance and have long waiting lists, Dr. Lessin noted.

General pediatricians were seeing more patients with ADHD, anxiety, and depression before the advent of COVID-19, though most are not trained in managing these conditions, said Dr. Lessin. “Approximately 25%-30% of my visits now are mental health related, and the pandemic will make it geometrically worse,” he said.

The current study, with its dramatic estimates of the number of children who have lost a parent because of COVID-19, may bring attention to the fact that more training and money are needed to support mental health programs for children, he said.

Lead author Dr. Kidman had no financial conflicts to disclose. The study was supported by grants to corresponding author Ashton M. Verdery, PhD, from the National Institute on Aging and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Dr. Lessin had no financial conflicts but serves on the Pediatric News editorial advisory board.

SOURCE: Kidman R et al. JAMA Pediatr. .

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