A letter published in JAMA Pediatrics, co-authored by Rachel Kidman from the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University, presents a statistical model showing that by February 2021 around 40,000 children had lost a parent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This amounts to an average of one child losing a parent for every 13 COVID-19 deaths.
Children face immense challenges in the wake of the pandemic. While there have been anecdotal reports of children losing parents, this is the first study to estimate the increase in orphan rates nationwide. The authors also published an op-ed in The Washington Post to bring attention to the tens of thousands of children orphaned by COVID-19 who need immediate support.
“The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for children — from heightened physical violence to food insecurity — will leave a mark on this generation. We show that children are also increasingly experiencing parental death, which can have severe and lasting consequences,” said Kidman, an associate professor of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine in the Renaissance School of Medicine and in the Program of Public Health.
The study combined data on COVID-19 mortality and simulated data on kinship networks to quantify how many children, ages zero to 17 years, in the U.S. have lost a parent over the course of the pandemic. They found that between 37,000 and 43,000 more children had lost a parent by February — an 18 to 20 percent increase in orphaning compared to a typical year.
Kidman and her co-authors point out that the burden will increase as the death toll from COVID-19 continues to mount. Their data also shows that Black children are disproportionally affected: they comprise 14 percent of the children in the U.S. but 20 percent of those losing a parent to COVID-19, reflecting underlying inequalities in mortality.
In the JAMA Pediatrics letter, the authors write, “Sweeping national reforms are needed to address the health, educational and economic fallout affecting children. Parentally bereaved children will also need targeted support to help with grief, particularly during this period of heightened social isolation.”
Kidman stresses that the country needs to mobilize resources now, as well as sustain efforts to monitor this affected and vulnerable population of children into the future. She states that “Right now, these children need schools to be open so they can socialize with friend and access support. They need interventions that can help them deal with their grief and can prevent more severe mental health consequences down the road. Their families need economic relief. There may also be unique challenges that emerge in the future — we don’t know the impact of experiencing loss and grief during such an acute national crisis — and we have to be prepared to respond with flexibility and compassionate programming.”
Dr. Kidman’s co-authors include Rachel Margolis from University of Western Ontario in Canada, Emily Smith-Greenaway from University of Southern California, and Ashton Verdery from Pennsylvania State University.