A Lot of Kids Lost Parents and Caregivers to COVID-19

By Samantha Artiga
November 5, 2021

Samantha Artiga is the Vice President and Director of the Racial Equity and Health Policy Program at KFF and a member of the 2021 Tradeoffs Research Council. Her work focuses on the intersection of racism and discrimination, social and economic inequities, and health.

While certain measures of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact have become very familiar — cases, hospitalizations and deaths — there are other ripple effects that are only just beginning to be quantified. One of the most tragic and profound impacts has been children’s loss of parents and caregivers due to COVID-19. A recent study published in Pediatrics by a team of researchers led by Susan Hillis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quantified the number of children who lost parents or caregivers due to COVID-19 and found stark racial disparities, compounding other disproportionate impacts of the pandemic for children of color.

Combining COVID-19 data from the National Center for Health Statistics and birth certificate data from the CDC Natality Online Database, the authors used a statistical model to estimate that between April 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, more than 140,000 children in the United States experienced the death of a parent or caregiver due to COVID-19. (Hillis told NPR recently that the number is now likely closer to 175,000.)

The authors also estimated that children of color accounted for 65% of kids losing primary caregivers, even though they only account for 39% of total children in the U.S. Compared to white children, American Indian and Alaska Native children were 4.5 times as likely to have had a parent or caregiver die due to COVID-19, while Black, Hispanic and Asian kids were 2.4, 1.8 and 1.1 times more likely, respectively.

The researchers note these losses could have long-lasting consequences for these kids. Caregiver loss is identified as an Adverse Childhood Experience, which can have major negative impacts on health and well-being as well as educational and economic opportunities. Beyond directly impacting a child’s mental and physical health, caregiver loss can also contribute to financial insecurity, which, in turn, can negatively affect health.

These findings highlight the importance of providing support and implementing evidence-based responses to address parent and caregiver loss as part of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, including increasing vaccinations to minimize the number of kids losing a caregiver. Moreover, they emphasize the importance of ensuring these efforts meet the needs of children of color, who have suffered disproportionate parent and caregiver loss. Addressing these needs will be important for preventing widening racial disparities in the health and well-being of children.

Want Research Corner delivered to your inbox every Friday? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!