Researchers: The pandemic cost 500 Idaho kids their parents and caregivers

A new research paper in the journal Pediatrics puts a number on the tragic losses

By: - October 13, 2021 4:47 am
Stock photo of pallbearers carrying a casket with a white flower arrangement

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on Idahoans. (Stock photo by Carolyn Booth from Pixabay)

Nearly 500 children in Idaho lost a parent or other primary caregiver because of the pandemic, a new research paper estimates.

Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said Tuesday that the loss of a parent is “a tragedy in those children’s lives” and “something that we worry about a great deal.”

He said children who lose a caregiver will need strong support systems — from immediate and extended family members — and support in school.

“And then we really will need to be focused on how we continue to increase the behavioral health system in Idaho, particularly for children,” Jeppesen said.

The state’s new behavioral health plan has a large focus on children, he said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics journal, Pediatrics, released the paper earlier this month. 

The researchers estimated that 497 children in Idaho lost their primary caregiver by the end of June. The precise number could be as low as 459 or as high as 544 children, based on the researchers’ findings.

The findings suggest that Idaho’s Latino/Hispanic, Black, Asian American and Native American children have suffered a disproportionately high rate of loss from the pandemic.

For children who live through the pandemic, “I think the most impactful long-term issue we have is orphanhood,” said Dr. Thomas Patterson, a Treasure Valley pediatrician and specialist in “ACEs,” adverse childhood experiences.

“I think this is going to have a longstanding impact on children’s mental health and … it’s going to take a multifaceted approach” to protect children, Patterson said.

The easiest way to protect children from losing a parent, grandparent or guardian caregiver to COVID-19 directly is for those adults to be vaccinated and follow other public health recommendations. After that, there are ways to help kids who lose a caregiver, but it isn’t possible to undo the loss.

“I don’t know that Idaho has the right political environment to protect by prevention,” Patterson said.

Losing a mother, father, grandparent or other primary caregiver in childhood is one of the most significant ACEs. It is linked to mental health problems, education cut short, lower self-esteem, sexual risk behaviors and higher risk of substance abuse, suicide, violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which contributed to the research.

The researchers based their estimates on mortality, fertility and census data to estimate the deaths of a parent, live-in grandparent or other primary caregiver between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021. They calculated a rate of “COVID-19-associated deaths” — not just deaths from the disease itself, but also deaths caused indirectly by lockdowns, social and travel restrictions, and the pandemic’s stress on health care access and capacity.

At least 50 Idahoans under the age of 40 have died of COVID-19, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

But their data gathering ended before the delta variant hit Idaho.

The current surge forced Idaho’s largest health systems to put hospital-based surgeries and procedures — even for things like tumor removal — on hold. And a month ago, the surge sent Idaho into a “crisis standards of care” declaration, in which some Idahoans may receive a lower quality of care.

“Unfortunately since this data measures only through June it’s likely this number is even higher following the delta surge, and even more children have been impacted for life,” said Logan Dennis, Idaho Voices for Children’s health policy research and communications associate.

The delta variant also has put dozens of pregnant women in the hospital, sometimes in intensive care beds, with COVID-19, as the Idaho Capital Sun has reported.

Dr. Kathryn Turner, deputy state epidemiologist, noted that Idaho is now seeing younger people dying from COVID-19.

Last year, more than half of deaths related to COVID-19 were in people in their 70s, 80s or older, Turner said.

“What we’re seeing during this current phase of the pandemic is we’re seeing much, much younger people dying,” she said. “In fact, the majority of people who are dying are younger than 70 years of age. And we’re seeing almost a tripling in the percentage of deaths among people who are less than … 40. So it should be no surprise to anybody that this is impacting parents of young children who may fall victim to COVID. We are seeing a younger population dying, and that is going to have an impact on children.”

All of us – especially our children – will feel the serious immediate and long-term impact of this problem for generations to come. 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.

– Susan Hillis, CDC researcher and lead author, in a news release about the study

The researchers found that more than 140,000 children in the U.S. experienced the death of a parent or grandparent caregiver from causes related to the pandemic, with “significant racial and ethnic disparities in caregiver deaths due to COVID-19.”

About 61% of the total U.S. population is white, and the remaining 39% are other races and ethnicities. But, the paper said, when it came to losing a caregiver, those numbers were flipped: White children made up 35% of those who lost a primary caregiver, while Hispanic, Black, Asian and other races and ethnicities accounted for 65% of the children losing a primary caregiver, the researchers found.

An Idaho Capital Sun analysis of census data and the researchers’ estimates found a similar pattern.

Children of Asian, Black, Indigenous or Latino/Hispanic descent account for about 21% of Idaho’s total population under age 18.

But according to the researchers’ estimates, those groups of children accounted for 37% of Idaho kids whose parent or other primary caregiver died of COVID-19 or causes related to the pandemic.

What can we do to help?

The CDC offers these evidence-based strategies to improve outcomes for children who experience the COVID-associated death of their caregivers:

  • Maintaining children in their families is a priority. This means families bereaved by the pandemic must be supported, and those needing kinship or foster care must rapidly receive services.
  • Child resilience can be bolstered via programs and policies that promote stable, nurturing relationships and address childhood adversity. Key strategies include:
    • Strengthening economic supports to families.
    • Quality childcare and educational support.
    • Evidence-based programs to improve parenting skills and family relationships.
  • All strategies must be age specific for children and must be sensitive to racial disparities and structural inequalities. They must reach the children who need them most.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton was a senior investigative reporter with the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover included health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.