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Nearly 40,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to a sobering new report published in the JAMA Network Monday.

The model projects that 37,300 children were affected by a parent’s death from COVID-19 by February 2021, but as many as 43,000 could be affected by a parent’s death related to the pandemic. The number does not account for children who lost more than one parent or children who lost a non-parental primary caregiver.

As the rate of vaccinations speeds up across the country, some states like Texas and Mississippi are relaxing their pandemic restrictions, against the urging of health officials. Hospitals in Michigan are once again experiencing an overflow of patients as rising coronavirus cases among young people have led to another surge in the state. 

The model estimates that if 1.5 million people die of COVID-19 before the country reaches herd immunity, it would leave 116,900 “parentally bereaved children.” Adolescents represent three-quarters of those affected.

“I think the ripple effect is going to be very traumatic and I think these kids deserve extra support,” Dr. Dyan Hes, founder of Gramercy Pediatrics, said on CBSN Tuesday. “This is going to be huge, because what the studies show also is that African American children are disproportionately affected by the loss of a parent.” 

Black children accounted for 20% of children who lost at least one parent but only 14% of the total U.S. child population, the study shows. 

The researchers offer strong words calling for action to be taken to care for these children in a situation they say “can be particularly traumatizing for children and leave families ill prepared to navigate its consequences.”

“Sweeping national reforms are needed to address the health, educational, and economic fallout affecting children,” the report says. “Parentally bereaved children will also need targeted support to help with grief, particularly during this period of heightened social isolation.”

It also offers a stark warning: “The burden will grow heavier as the death toll continues to mount.”

Texas teens lose both parents to COVID-19


Finding a grief counselor for children is already a difficult task, Dr. Dyan Hes said, adding that she could have had “maybe three or four parents who have passed away” among her patients during her career of more than two decades. 

“A regular therapist is not always equipped to deal with grief counseling,” she said.

Hes empathized with the burden of losing a parent, both for children and the entire household.

“You have kids who are at home with one parent with the economic burden of not having two parents working perhaps, or out of work during COVID,” she said. “Now you’ve lost a parent and you are sitting at home on a screen with a teacher, and you have nobody to talk to and you can’t hug somebody.”