The coronavirus is taking the lives of Hispanic, Black, and American Indian children at a significant rate compared to white children, according to federal statistics that were released Tuesday.
The numbers, which are the most current comprehensive U.S. accounting of pediatric infections and fatalities, revealed that there have been 391,814 confirmed cases among children under the age of 21 from February to July and 121 deaths.
More than three-quarters of the 121 deaths have been Hispanic, Black, and American Indian children, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the three groups represent only 41% of the U.S. population. The federal agency collected the data from health departments across the country.
The findings on the disproportionate deaths of youth-run parallel to the pandemic disparities reported among adults. Previous studies have proven that the virus’s death toll is twice as high among people of color under age 65 as white Americans.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, people of color also disproportionately make up “excess deaths”—people killed by the disease without ever being diagnosed or those killed indirectly as a result of the virus’s broad impacts on the health care system.
But the findings on children disparities are considerably starker than those of adults.
Out of the children and teens killed by the pandemic, 45% were Hispanic, 29% were Black, and 4% American Indian. Experts say one key factor is possibly due to the underlying health disparity among children and young adults. Roughly 75% of those who died had at minimum one underlying condition; the most reoccurring were asthma and obesity, two conditions that disproportionately target minority youths.
“This is the strongest evidence yet that there are deep racial disparities in children just like there are in adults,” said John Williams, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “What that should mean for people is steps like wearing a mask are not just about protecting your family and yourself. It is about racial equity.”
“On one hand, the small total number of deaths is reassuring. You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of children infected and only 121 killed,” said Frank Esper, a pediatric-infectious-disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. “At the same time, proportions at which minority groups are dying are hard to ignore.”
The CDC also probed other conditions that are more likely among minority children, social disparities, which suggests minority children are more likely to have crowded living conditions, food and housing insecurity, wealth and education gaps, and difficulty accessing health care due to the lack of resources among families. The agency points to the families’ ability to have insurance, child care, transportation, and sick leave.
CDC’s report reinforces another prominent characteristic of the virus—that as one gets older, it becomes increasingly lethal. Among the deaths of children, 10% occurred in infants age 1 or younger, about 20% of pediatric cases were in the 1-9 age group, while the remaining cases fell between the ages of 10-20.
Experts still cannot answer why the virus attacks the elderly but leaves the very young relatively unscathed, its still a central and puzzling mystery. The novel virus acts differently from others that we have seen before, such as the seasonal influenza, viruses that are dangerous to both the young and old.
Researchers believe if they figure out why children are less affected by COVID-19, it could help them understand how and why it sickens and kills other age groups. Although it has not been confirmed, emerging evidence points at a key protein as the possible reason. The ACE2 receptor, which is the cell that the virus enters through, is present in lower amounts in the airways of children compared to adults.
There has been a push to get children back in school, but not everyone is for it. The Tuesday report emphasized that the relatively low death toll was recorded when almost all schools were closed. It is still up in the air on how school reopenings could affect those rates, the Washington Post reports.
Officials concluded in their report that what is important is that health departments, medical providers, and communities to “mobilize to remove systemic barriers that contribute to health disparities.”
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