40,000 Kids in the U.S. Have Lost a Parent to Covid-19, Study Finds

A street in Queens, New York,  May 2020.
A street in Queens, New York, May 2020.
Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP (Getty Images)

A new study provides a heartbreaking reminder of the pain caused by the covid-19 pandemic. It estimates that nearly 40,000 children in the U.S. have lost at least one parent to the viral illness as of February this year. The study also found that more than 100,000 children would have lost a parent if the virus had been allowed to run its course unrestricted.

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There have been previous attempts to tally up the grief caused by pandemic-related deaths in the U.S., now at over a half million. A recent poll this March, for instance, found that nearly one in five Americans knew someone personally who had died from covid-19. But this study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, seems to be the first to focus on children specifically.

“There’s a narrative that kids are not affected that much from the virus since they don’t tend to get as sick and have lower mortality than older adults,” study author Rachel Margolis, a sociologist and demographer at Western University in Ontario, Canada, told Gizmodo in an email. “However, kids are very much affected by family members dying, and so in this paper, we examined how often kids are losing a parent.

Margolis and her colleagues relied on previous research meant to gauge the impact of any single death on family members. In this case, they tried to estimate the average number of children under 18 who would be connected to a single covid-19 death, based on what we know about the U.S. population and the deaths linked to the pandemic so far. They also compared what they found to the estimated number of children who would lose a parent in a non-pandemic year.

On average, the authors calculated that each covid-19 death in the U.S would likely leave 0.078 children without a parent. That adds up quickly when you consider just how many people have died in the U.S. from the pandemic.

Between February 2020 and February 2021, their best estimate found that 37,300 children lost at least one parent to covid-19, based on the roughly 479,000 deaths documented during that time. Most of these children were estimated to be in their teens. When they took excess deaths into account—deaths above the yearly average that represent the direct and indirect toll of covid-19—they estimated that 43,000 children had lost a parent to the pandemic. Compared to a normal year, they also calculated that the pandemic had led to a 17.5% to 20.2% increase in parental deaths.

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“For comparison, the attacks on September 11, 2001 left 3,000 children without a parent,” the authors wrote. “The burden will grow heavier as the death toll continues to mount.”

Indeed, since this February, around 70,000 more Americans have died of covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And though our highly effective vaccines should soon turn the tide against the pandemic, hundreds of people are still dying every day, while hospitalizations and daily new cases remain relatively high. Yet things could have been worse. In a worst-case scenario where the vaccines hadn’t come along and the pandemic was able to kill 1.5 million people in the U.S. before herd immunity was reached, the authors estimated that likely 116,900 children would have lost a parent.

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Even once the pandemic is finally over, there will still be those left behind to mourn the people lost to it. Another study last year, conducted by some of the same authors behind this new research, found that each covid-19 death in the U.S. leaves behind around 9 family members on average. And as with the pandemic itself, these losses will disproportionately affect some groups more than others. In this current study, Black children accounted for 20% of parental deaths, despite only representing 14% of children overall.

“Our research shows that kids are experiencing different kinds of risk than those faced by older adults, but they are not immune,” Margolis said. “In addition, many adults have lost parents or other family members. There are serious consequences of bereavement, and especially so for children who are heightened risk of poor mental health and economic stress.”

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While elderly people do remain the most vulnerable to dying from covid-19, the largely uncontained pandemic has nonetheless claimed the lives of many younger Americans. According to CDC data, more than 100,000 people under the age of 65 have died from it. Given their results, the researchers advocate for more to be done to help the people, especially children, most directly affected by all these deaths.

“My hope is that as we move out of the pandemic that we take seriously the process of grieving. I’d love to see more governments offering bereavement leave,” Margolis said. “In addition, regarding the specific kids that have lost a parent, we need to find out who these kids are, connect them to local services, and help them get short and long-term support. We know that losing a parent is difficult in the best of times. It’s even more difficult when we can’t gather and support each other.”

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This article has been updated with comments from one of the study’s authors.  

Born and raised in NYC, Ed covers public health, disease, and weird animal science for Gizmodo. He has previously reported for the Atlantic, Vice, Pacific Standard, and Undark Magazine.

DISCUSSION

For perspective, I’m curious how many kids lose a parent in a bad flu season which results in over 200 deaths a day.