More than 120,000 US kids had caregivers die during pandemic

NEW YORK (AP) — The number of American children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic may be greater than previously estimated, and the toll has been much greater among black and Hispanic Americans, a new study suggests.

More than half of the children who lost a primary caregiver during the pandemic belonged to those two racial groups, which make up about 40% of the U.S. population, according to the study published Thursday by the medical journal Pediatrics.

“These findings really highlight those children who have been made most vulnerable by the pandemic, and who need additional resources to be devoted to them,” said one of the study’s authors, Dr. Alexandra Blenkinsop of Imperial College London, in a statement.

During 15 months of the nearly 19-month COVID-19 pandemic, more than 120,000 U.S. children lost a parent or grandparent who was the primary provider of financial support and care, the study found. Another 22,000 children have experienced the death of a secondary caregiver, such as a grandparent who provided housing but not a child’s other basic needs.

In many cases, the surviving parents or other relatives were left behind to care for these children. But the researchers used the term “orphanage” in their study when they tried to estimate how many children’s lives were turned upside down.

Federal statistics are not yet available on how many U.S. children went into foster care last year. Researchers estimate that COVID-19 has increased the number of orphans by 15%.

The figures from the new study are based on statistical models that used fertility rates, death statistics and household composition data to make estimates.

A previous study by several researchers estimated that as of February 2021, about 40,000 American children lost a parent to COVID-19.

The findings of the two studies are not inconsistent, said Ashton Verdery, an author of the earlier study. Verdery and his colleagues focused on a shorter period of time than the new study. Verdery’s group also focused only on parental deaths, while the new paper also covered what happened to caring grandparents.

“It’s very important to understand grandparent losses,” Verdery, a researcher at Penn State, said in an email. “Many children live with grandparents,” a housing situation that is more common among certain racial groups.

About 32% of all children who lost a primary caregiver were Hispanic and 26% were Black. Hispanic and black Americans make up much smaller percentages of the population than that. White children accounted for 35% of children who lost primary caregivers, although more than half of the population is white.

In some states, the differences were much greater. In California, 67% of children who lost primary caregivers were Hispanic. In Mississippi, 57% of children who lost primary caregivers were black, the study found.

The new study based its calculation on excess deaths, or deaths above what would be considered typical. Most of those deaths were due to the coronavirus, but the pandemic has also led to more deaths from other causes.

Kate Kelly, a Georgia teenager, lost her 54-year-old father in January. William “Ed” Kelly was having trouble breathing and an emergency room clinic suspected it was due to COVID-19, she said. But it turned out he had a clogged artery and died at work of a heart attack, leaving Kate, her two sisters and her mother behind.

In the first month after his death, friends and neighbors brought groceries, made donations and were very helpful. But after that, it seemed like everyone moved on—except Kate and her family.

“It’s just like there’s been no help at all,” said the high school junior from Lilburn.

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The Associated Press Health & Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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