There’s a sad, silent and largely-overlooked epidemic going on within the COVID-19 pandemic. Since April of 2020, scores of children around the world have lost a primary or secondary caregiver, one or both parents, a grandparent or other caregiver, to the deadly virus. Over 140,000 American children under the age of 18 have experienced such a loss, a recent study finds.

When a child loses the person who has given them a home, seen to their basic needs and physical care, and hopefully given them love and emotional security, life becomes daunting and uncertain. Sadly, COVID protocols have meant that most of these children were never able to see their hospitalized loved ones, much less had a chance to say good-bye to them.

It is estimated that currently as many as 175,000 children have been left orphaned as a result of COVID. That number will keep rising as long as deaths from the virus continue.

The consequences of orphanhood are long-lasting, if not permanent. In addition to grief and sadness, children who experience the loss of a caregiver may have to move and change schools; they are more likely to experience economic hardship, mental health issues, less academic success and lower self-esteem. The risk of suicide, engagement in risky sexual behaviors, substance abuse, sexual abuse, violence and exploitation are also greater.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Imperial College London, Harvard University, Oxford University and the University of Cape Town, South Africa have collaborated to study the effects of COVID-19-related deaths of primary and secondary caregivers on children. Using mortality, fertility and census data, COVID-19-associated orphanhood was estimated for the U.S. and for each state, then further analyzed by race and ethnicity. Data were collected between April 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.

More than 120,000 children in the U.S. lost a primary caregiver due to COVID-19 during that time period. Another 22,000 children lost a secondary caregiver, perhaps a grandparent who provided housing though not necessarily other basic needs. In all, nearly 143,000 children experienced the death of a loved one and caregiver.

The majority of children who lost a caregiver were from racial and ethnic minority groups. Thirty-five (35) percent of non-Hispanic white children lost a caregiver compared to 65 percent of children of racial and ethnic minorities.

American Indian and Alaska Native children suffered the greatest losses, while white children were the least likely to be orphaned or lose a caregiver. Black children were 2.4 times more likely than white children to experience the death of a parent or grandparent caregiver. Hispanic children were about twice as likely.

Texas, California and New York, states with large populations, had the greatest number of children who experienced the death of a caregiver.

The number of COVID deaths are even higher now, and it is estimated that currently as many as 175,000 children have been left orphaned as a result of COVID. That number will keep rising as long as the deaths from the virus continue.

Because the consequences of orphanhood are so damaging to children, it is imperative that bereaved families and society take steps that will improve the long-term outcomes for all the children cast adrift by COVID-19.

Children who lose a caregiver are more likely to have mental health issues, less academic success and lower self-esteem.

“We often think of the impact of COVID-19 in terms of the number of lives claimed by the disease, but as this study shows, it is critical to also address the broader impact — both in terms of those who have died, and those who have been left behind,” researcher, Charles A. Nelson, III, of Boston Children’s Hospital, said in a statement. “We must ensure children who have lost a parent or caregiver have access to the support services they need, and that this additional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is comprehensively addressed in both our rapid response and our overall public health response.”

COVID-19 Emergency Response priorities focus on vaccination, mitigation, testing, contract tracing and disease management, but this doesn’t help children whose lives have been upended by the loss of a parent, grandparent or other caregiver. The study authors call for policy action that would also integrate care for orphaned children into the emergency response. Locating these children, assessing their well-being and directing them to appropriate care can help to improve outcomes for orphaned children for the duration of the pandemic and well into the future.

“Effective action to reduce health disparities and protect children from direct and secondary harms from COVID-19 is a public health and moral imperative,” they conclude.

The study is published in Pediatrics.