The COVID-19 pandemic upended the U.S. health care market and disrupted much of what was thought to be consistent and necessary hospital-based care for children. Early in the pandemic, clinics closed, elective surgeries were delayed, and well visits were postponed. Mitigation strategies were launched nationwide to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2 including mask mandates, social distancing, shelter-in-place orders, and school closures. While these measures were enacted to target COVID-19, a potential off-target effect was reductions in transmission of other respiratory illness, and potentially nonrespiratory infectious illnesses and conditions exacerbated by acute infections.1 These measures have heavily impacted the pediatric population, wherein respiratory infections are common, and also because daycares and school can be hubs for disease transmission.2
To evaluate the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on pediatric health care utilization, we performed a multicenter, cross-sectional study of 44 children’s hospitals using the Pediatric Health Information System (PHIS) database.3 Children aged 2 months to 18 years discharged from a PHIS hospital with nonsurgical diagnoses from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 over a 4-year period (2017-2020) were included in the study. The primary exposure was the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, which was divided into three study periods: pre–COVID-19 (January–February 2020), early COVID-19 (March-April 2020), and COVID-19 (May-September 2020). The primary outcomes were the observed-to-expected ratio of respiratory and nonrespiratory illness encounters of the study period, compared with the 3 years prior to the pandemic. For these calculations, the expected encounters for each period was derived from the same calendar periods from prepandemic years (2017-2019).
A total of 9,051,980 pediatric encounters were included in the analyses: 6,811,799 with nonrespiratory illnesses and 2,240,181 with respiratory illnesses. We found a 42% reduction in overall encounters during the COVID-19 period, compared with the 3 years prior to the pandemic, with a greater reduction in respiratory, compared with nonrespiratory illnesses, which decreased 62% and 38%, respectively. These reductions were consistent across geographic and encounter type (ED vs. hospitalization). The frequency of hospital-based encounters for common pediatric respiratory illnesses was substantially reduced, with reductions in asthma exacerbations (down 76%), pneumonia (down 81%), croup (down 84%), influenza (down 87%) and bronchiolitis (down 91%). Differences in both respiratory and nonrespiratory illnesses varied by age, with larger reductions found in children aged less than 12 years. While adolescent (children aged over 12 years) encounters diminished during the early COVID period for both respiratory and nonrespiratory illnesses, their encounters returned to previous levels faster than those from younger children. For respiratory illnesses, hospital-based adolescents encounters had returned to prepandemic levels by the end of the study period (September 2020).
These findings warrant consideration as relaxation of SARS-CoV-2 mitigation are contemplated. Encounters for respiratory and nonrespiratory illnesses declined less and recovered faster in adolescents, compared with younger children. The underlying contributors to this trend are likely multifactorial. For example, respiratory illnesses such as croup and bronchiolitis are more common in younger children and adolescents may be more likely to transmit SARS-CoV-2, compared with younger age groups.4,5 However, adolescents may have had less strict adherence to social distancing measures.6 Future efforts to halt transmission of SARS-CoV-2, as well as other respiratory pathogens, should inform mitigation efforts in the adolescent population with considerations of the intensity of social mixing in different pediatric age groups.
While reductions in encounters caused by respiratory illnesses were substantial, more modest but similar age-based trends were seen in nonrespiratory illnesses. Yet, reduced transmission of infectious agents may not fully explain these findings. For example, it is possible that families sought care for mild to moderate nonrespiratory illness in clinics or via telehealth rather than the EDs.7 Provided there were no unintended negative consequences, such transition of care to non-ED settings would suggest there was overutilization of hospital resources prior to the pandemic. Additional assessments would be helpful to examine this more closely and to clarify the long-term impact of those transitions.
It is also possible that the pandemic effects on financial, social, and family stress may have led to increases in some pediatric health care encounters, such as those for mental health conditions,8 nonaccidental trauma or inability to adhere to treatment because of lack of resources.9,10 Additional study on the evolution and distribution of social and stress-related illnesses is critical to maintain and improve the health of children and adolescents.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in rapid and marked changes to both communicable and noncommunicable illnesses and care-seeking behaviors. Some of these findings are encouraging, such as large reductions in respiratory and nonrespiratory illnesses. However, other trends may be harbingers of negative health consequences of the pandemic, such as increases in health care utilization later in the pandemic. Further study of the evolving pandemic’s effects on disease and health care utilization is needed to benefit our children now and during the next pandemic.
Dr. Antoon is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University and a pediatric hospitalist at the Monroe Carroll Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, both in Nashville, Tenn.
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