WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has brought heartbreaking consequences for millions of U.S. children, even as most avoided serious illness themselves, pediatric experts told Congress on Wednesday.
Take, for instance, a young girl from Tennessee named Sophia, whose story was relayed by Dr. Margaret Rush, president of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University.
Within a few days after Sophia started kindergarten, she contracted a mild case of COVID-19, Rush said. She didn’t require hospitalization, but her parents, both unvaccinated, soon became critically ill.
Neither of Sophia’s parents survived, making her among 1.5 million children worldwide who have lost a main caregiver to COVID-19, Rush said.
“Sophia, now five, will carry this pain forever,” Rush said during the hearing held by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “There should be no question that this pandemic has negatively impacted the health and well-being of children, now and perhaps well into the future.”
While children have been much less likely to be hospitalized or die from a COVID-19 infection thanks in part to differences in how their bodies respond to the virus, many still have become sick.
As of Sept. 16, more than 5.5 million children have been infected by the virus since the start of the pandemic. That represents more than 15% of the total cases, according to Dr. Lee Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
More than 21,000 children have been hospitalized, a rate that’s 2.5 to 3 times higher than flu-related hospitalizations, Beers testified.
At least 480 children have died as a result of COVID-19, making it one of the 10 leading causes of death for U.S. kids and one that has disproportionately affected Black and Latino children.
Delta variant and the return to school
The more-transmissible delta variant, and the lack of a vaccine approved for children under 12, have been reflected in an exponential rise in infections among children.
There were more than a million new cases among children between Aug. 5 and Sept. 16, Beers said, and more than 225,000 cases added in the past week.
Rush said her hospital has seen a shift in the age distribution among children testing positive, though the percentage of children requiring hospitalization has remained about the same.
Still, children’s hospitals have seen an uptick in patients because more children nationally are being infected, she added.
Rep. Frank Pallone, (D-N.J.), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, described the increases among children as “alarming,” and asked why it is that the children’s hospitals have been so hard-hit.
“Many of the public-health measures that were in place in 2020 that separated children, and they kept children more isolated, as we’ve all talked about this morning, also prevented the transmission of disease,” Rush said. “So children are now back together, they’re in school settings … and so they are sharing germs again.”
Tennessee’s low rate of vaccination has been a factor in the increases seen locally, she said, citing the state’s intermittent recent ranking as the state with the highest number of COVID cases for both adults and children.
Teenagers in Tennessee also have a vaccination rate that is below the national average for that age group, Rush added.
Mental health issues
But the pandemic’s effect on children goes beyond the direct consequences of an infection.
Whether they’ve become sick or not, American kids have had three school years disrupted due to COVID-19, and have faced growing challenges with mental health, obesity, and the loss of learning that should have occurred during those years.
Each of the witnesses during Wednesday’s hearing specifically mentioned the mental health issues for kids, who spent months away from school and friends. Rush described behavioral health as an epidemic among children before the COVID-19 pandemic, and said that hospitals have seen more children showing up in crisis.
Dr. Tracy Beth Høeg, a physician and researcher at the University of California at Davis, questioned whether some U.S. policies for children, including rules on mask use and school closures and quarantines, make sense.
She contrasted those policies against looser ones in some European countries, arguing that those countries have better acknowledged the non-COVID-19 health risks for children.
“It’s kind of ironic that in trying to keep these kids 100% safe, that they’re feeling abandoned,” Høeg said.
U.S. kids also have faced an uphill fight against vaccine misinformation.
One California teen launched her own site, VaxTeen, after hearing stories of fellow teenagers who were searching for accurate information on how to get vaccinated if their parents would not consent.
Kelly Danielpour, the site’s founder and a Stanford University student, said the pandemic has been a “tremendously difficult” time for everyone, particular for young people.
She asked legislators on the panel to think broadly about what it will mean for children to feel safe and healthy again, suggesting that it will take much more than just lower COVID-19 infection rates.
Danielpour described a Virginia teenager who had contacted her after successfully convincing her parents to let her be vaccinated. The teen was working in an ice-cream store, and told Danielpour how unsafe she felt, getting yelled at by customers who refused to wear masks.
“There’s so much to be said for the right to feel healthy and safe and protected that we cannot discount,” Danielpour said.