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Parental Deaths Climb as Much as 20% During COVID-19 Pandemic in US

(Reuters Health) – COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S. have so far taken a parent from more than 37,000 children, an increase of 17.5% to 20.2% in parental bereavement compared to the pre-pandemic period, researchers say.

The study team examined mortality due to the COVID-19 pandemic from February 2020 to February 2021, including 470,00 recorded U.S. COVID-19 deaths. They also looked at an estimated 552,000 excess deaths during this period based on the difference between expected and actual all-cause mortality, including deaths directly and indirectly related to the virus.

Based only on recorded COVID-19 deaths, researchers estimated that a total of 37,337 children experienced the death of a parent due to the virus during the study period. This included 9,863 children under 10 years old as well as 27,474 youth 10 to 17 years old.

Based on excess deaths from all causes, an estimated total of 43,027 children experienced the death of a parent due directly or indirectly to COVID-19. This included 11,366 children under 10 as well as 31,661 youth aged 10 to 17.

Overall, with every COVID-19 fatality, an estimated 0.078 children under 18 years old in the U.S. has lost a parent, the researchers report in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Most deaths have occurred among the elderly, but the sheer scale of the epidemic means that there are also substantial numbers of deaths among younger adults,” said lead study author Rachel Kidman, an associate professor in public health at Stony Brook University in New York.

“This is a group more likely to have young children at home – children now orphaned by COVID-19,” Kidman said by email.

The study also highlights racial disparities in the children affected by parental loss due to the pandemic.

Black children make up only about 14% of kids in the U.S., but they made up an estimated 20% of youth losing a parent to COVID-19, the authors note.

While the study didn’t examine the causes behind this disparity, it may be due to higher levels of risk for exposure to the virus, differences in the risk of death among infected individuals, and differences in family size, said study coauthor Ashton Verdery, an associate professor of sociology and demography at the Pennsylvania State University, in State College.

Black people, for example disproportionately work in the service sector and other jobs that make distancing more challenging, Verdery said by email.

“A related factor is that COVID first hit areas where larger numbers of minorities live, which contributes because medical responses were less efficient during the first wave as treatment protocols were not as developed and hospitals were nearly overwhelmed, and because distancing is likely more challenging in densely populated areas,” Verdery said.

“And, of course, there are differentials in health insurance and access to high quality medical care that also likely contributed,” Verdery added.

One limitation of the study is that the estimates relied on demographic modeling, not survey or administrative data, the study team notes. Another is that the analysis only looked at parents, not other primary caregivers, and may underestimate the number of children left without adults to care for them as a result of deaths during the pandemic.

Even so, the results highlight losses that children are experiencing at a time when they may not have typical support from family, friends, and teachers to help them cope, Kidman said.

“Clinicians and counselors need to be aware of what these children are going through, and be prepared to link them to appropriate services,” Kidman advised. “They also need to be cognizant of how they can support the surviving parent or caregiver emotionally and economically.”

SOURCE: JAMA Pediatrics, online April 5, 2021.

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