More than 120,000 children in the U.S. lost a primary caregiver during the pandemic, a study released Thursday found, drawing attention to the wider impact COVID-19’s spread has had on children.
The research, published in Pediatrics, estimated that 120,630 children endured the death of a primary caregiver and another 22,000 lost a secondary caregiver, or a co-residing grandparent that provides housing, during the pandemic. In total, about 1 in 500 children experienced the COVID-19-associated death of a parent or caregiver.
The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Imperial College London and several universities, highlights the “ongoing secondary tragedy” among children and calls for the public health response to encompass the growing issue, the National Institutes of Health said in a release.
"Effective action to reduce health disparities and protect children from direct and secondary harms from COVID-19 is a public health and moral imperative,” the paper reads.
Researchers defined COVID-19-associated deaths as fatalities spanning from April 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, that were caused both directly by the virus and indirectly by the pandemic, such as due to lockdowns or less access to health care.
The model identified stark racial and ethnic disparities in the fatalities, with children of minorities making up 65 percent of those who endured a primary caregiver’s death, despite making up 39 percent of the population.
American Indian and Alaska Native children were 4.5 times more likely to lose a caregiver than white children, while Black children were 2.4 times more likely and Hispanic children were 1.8 times more likely.
"The magnitude of young people affected is a sobering reminder of the devastating impact of the past 18 months," co-lead researcher Alexandra Blenkinsop of Imperial College London said.
Children who endure the loss of a parent have an increased risk of experiencing mental health problems, shorter schooling, lower self-esteem, sexual risk behaviors, substance abuse, suicide, violence, sexual abuse and exploitation.
According to the research, one American child experiences the loss of a caregiver for every four COVID-19 deaths.
CDC researcher and lead author Susan Hillis called COVID-19-associated orphanage a “hidden, global pandemic that has sadly not spared the United States.”
"All of us — especially our children — will feel the serious immediate and long-term impact of this problem for generations to come,” Hillis said. “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."
This research aligns with a previous study published in July that suggested that 1.5 million children worldwide lost a primary or secondary caregiver in the first 14 months of the pandemic.