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Idaho View: Coronavirus casualty: Nearly 500 Idaho children lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19

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Children orphaned by COVID-19

In this Sept. 2 file photo, a funeral director arranges flowers on a casket before a service in Tampa, Florida. According to a study published Thursday by the medical journal Pediatrics, the number of U.S. children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic may be larger than previously estimated, and the toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans. 

Scott McIntosh

Scott McIntosh

When Javier Castaneda, the principal of Heritage Community Charter School in Caldwell, died of COVID-19 last month at the age of 48, he left behind seven children. Natalie Rise, a nurse in North Idaho, who died in August of COVID-19 at the age of 46, left behind 10-year-old twins. Samantha Hickey, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the Boise area who died of COVID-19 in July 2020 at the age of 45, before there was a vaccine available, left behind two adult children and two young children.

More than 3,100 Idahoans have died of COVID-19 since the coronavirus pandemic began. While we often focus on the loss of life and keep a running tally of Idaho’s death toll, what we talk less about are the people left behind — in particular, the children of those who have passed.

More than 140,000 U.S. children lost a parent or caregiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published last week by the medical journal Pediatrics. In Idaho, that number is 497. “This is a huge red flag for everybody, both policymakers and the public, to recognize that this is going to have incredible impacts on children, not only now but throughout the rest of their life,” Hillarie Hagen, policy specialist at Idaho Voices for Children, said in a phone interview. “It’s shown just huge economic impacts as well as health impacts for kids.” While the majority of deaths from COVID-19 are among people older than 70, we are starting to see the age of COVID-19 patients and deaths come down. In Idaho, the mean age of those who have died of COVID-19 has dropped from 78 last December to 71 this September. Now, 11% of the COVID-related deaths in Idaho, 353 people, are younger than 60.

Losing a parent, grandparent or primary caregiver could have lasting effects for children, especially in Idaho, where there is a dearth of mental health services. The death of a primary caregiver is considered an adverse childhood experience, or ACE, which is becoming more important in our understanding of negative outcomes later in life, such as addiction, obesity and divorce, according to Hagen. “They’re considering COVID the new ACE,” Hagen said. “Losing a parent specifically to COVID is being considered a traumatic enough event that when they experience an ACE, later on in life, research has shown, they’re more likely to have chronic illnesses and have negative health and economic impacts as adults.” The study calculated that from April 1, 2020, to June 2021, 120,000 U.S. children lost a parent or grandparent who was a primary provider of financial support and care. Another 22,000 children experienced the death of a secondary caregiver, according to The Associated Press. Researchers estimate that COVID-19 drove a 15% increase in orphaned children. The new study’s numbers are based on statistical modeling that used fertility rates, death statistics and household composition data to make estimates.

The numbers from the study show that Hispanic children in Idaho are disproportionately affected. Hispanics make up about 13% of Idaho’s population and only 9% of the COVID-related deaths, but Hispanic children make up 21% of Idaho children who lost a parent or caregiver to the coronavirus-caused disease. For me, this is yet another reason to get the vaccine. The vaccination rate for Idahoans age 25-54 is only 48%. There must be a lot of parents in that group. I would urge those parents to think about the effect it would have on their children — for the rest of their lives — if they didn’t have Mom or Dad alive. Think about your kids. Get the vaccine.

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Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.

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