(WASHINGTON) — Since the onset of the pandemic, children in the U.S. have faced multiple challenges and hardships. Tragically, recent data reveals that a staggering number of children have been faced with the most heartbreaking reality: the loss of a caregiver to COVID-19.
An estimated 119,000 children across the country have lost a primary caregiver due to COVID-19 associated death, and more than 140,000 children experienced the death of a primary or secondary caregiver, defined as co-residing grandparents or kin, according to data in an internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document obtained exclusively by ABC News.
“This is yet another horrible byproduct of the pandemic and we as a global community must commit to supporting these children and families. The effects of this pandemic will be felt for decades,” Dr. Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, told ABC News.
The data is provisional, and the CDC confirmed to ABC News that it plans to release official data next month.
The figures are particularly staggering in comparison to a JAMA Pediatric study published in early April, which estimated approximately 40,000 children in the U.S. had lost a parent to COVID-19.
Emily Smith-Greenaway, associate professor of Sociology & Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California, called the new CDC figures “astounding.”
“These numbers demonstrate how the mortality shock of the pandemic is directly affecting tens of thousands of children. These are really intimately experienced losses that will certainly have consequences for children's wellbeing going forward,” Smith-Greenaway said.
As more than 609,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., an analysis published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which tracks the extent of loss of kin due to COVID-19 with a bereavement multiplier, estimates that 5.48 million family members have grieved the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19 since last year.
Pamela Addison, a 36-year-old New Jersey teacher, and mother to two young children, lost her husband, Martin, to COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic.
As a single parent, Addison said she felt very alone and vulnerable as she struggled to care for children and find her place in a “new normal,” which no longer included her husband.
“My heart aches for them to know that they just have me now,” Addison said.
Addison said she's doing the most she can to make sure they remember their father and the deep love he had for them. “Every night, they kiss their papa's picture and tell him goodnight. My daughter taught my son to do that, and it's an important part of our bedtime routine.”
The scale of COVID-19 related deaths is so large that even if a small fraction of those who have lost their lives had children under the age of 18, there would still be a significant number of children affected, Dr. Ashton Verdery, professor of Sociology, Demography, and Social Data Analytics at Penn State, told ABC News.
“There are substantially elevated death rates among adults in their 50s, a non-trivial fraction of whom still have children under 18,” Verdery said. "Each death can leave multiple children behind.”
According to the data, children of color have been significantly affected by the loss of a caregiver, something that reflects a disparity built on an existing inequality, even prior to the onset of the pandemic, according to Smith-Greenway.
“Black youth experience higher rates of familial loss earlier in life relative to white children--speaking to the racial inequality in mortality conditions. Specifically, we find that even as Black children represent about 14% of the U.S. child population, our estimates suggest they represent 20% of those bereaved,” she said.
A 2018 Pew Research study estimated that in 2016, 64 million Americans, or 20% of the U.S. population, lived with multiple generations, and 3.2 million Americans lived in households consisting of grandparents and grandchildren.
Children of color are often more likely to reside with grandparents, acting as their primary or secondary caregivers, according to Verdery, which further aggravates their disproportionate burden.
“The much higher death rates seen in communities of color, and more specifically, the greater death rates at younger ages owing to more exposure because of inability to socially isolate, employment situations, lead to the expectation that children of color will constitute an outsize share of those who lost a caregiver,” Verdery said.
Children who have lost a caregiver to COVID-19 will be particularly affected, according to experts, potentially experiencing long-lasting adverse health, educational and economic outcomes.
“Studies across the medical and social sciences routinely show that those who lose parents are at elevated risks of depression and related mental health challenges, have higher risks of criminal justice system involvement and higher rates of substance use, are more likely to drop out of schooling and less likely to attend college,” Verdery said. “Further down the line, we know all of those factors above place the individuals at greater risk of lower earnings, more unemployment, poor physical health, and relationship strains. To some extent, though the literature is more tenuous here, there is likely greater risk of early death.”
Although children are often resilient, and many who have been bereaved after the loss of a caregiver will be able to lead healthy and productive lives, “these youth are certainly 'at-risk' following a death and deserve adequate resources and support to try to help them navigate corresponding adversities,” Smith-Greenaway said. “These deaths leave holes in the lives of children that are not easily mended.”