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.

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.”

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.

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman.

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