COVID Orphans

Since early in the pandemic, there has been a myth that kids are not affected.  It is true that severe COVID-19 illness, including need for hospitalization, is less common among children than adults.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen: we have been averaging around 15 kids in the hospital on any given day, with up to a third requiring intensive care. And it remains unclear whether the phenomenon of MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome of COVID-19) that affect primarily children will have the potential for long-term effects like its cousin, Kawasaki syndrome.

But there are known serious and long-lasting impacts of COVID-19 on kids.  First, the rate of overweight and obesity has skyrocketed: the rate of increase in BMI among children under 19 years has doubled in the past 2 years compared with pre-pandemic increases (which were already alarming).  There has also been a dramatic acceleration of mental health problems in children and teens, including eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.  At our hospital we have seen an over 30% increase in emergency department visits for acute mental health issues, and a 50% increase in children and adolescents requiring hospitalization for a mental health condition, similar to our peers across the country.  And keep in mind, in the year before the pandemic suicide was already the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24.  This has led the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, along with other organizations, to declare a mental health crisis for kids.  Having seen it first hand, I think the often-overused word “crisis” is not too strong here.

On top of this, we now know of one more devastating effect of this pandemic: a recent study in Pediatrics estimates that over 140,000 US children – 1 in 500 – has lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19.  As with the mental health crisis, kids from underserved communities, including Black, Latino/a, and Indigenous youth, are disproportionately represented among these COVID orphans.

These impacts on the physical, mental, and social well-being of kids are of the type that are likely to be life-long.  We keep wondering when this pandemic will “end.” But for too many kids, the answer is not for a very, very long time.

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