The coronavirus pandemic in the United States has been marked by stark racial and socioeconomic disparities. Black and Latinx adults in this country are more likely to get the disease. They’re more likely to die from it. The same holds true for lower-income earners.
There has, however, been relatively little scientific evidence on how this all breaks down in children — until now.
Arguably the largest study on kids, COVID-19 and racial and socioeconomic disparities in the U.S., the research published in the journal Pediatrics on Wednesday revealed striking differences between children of color and white children.
Researchers looked at 1,000 children and young adults ages 0 to 22 in the Washington, D.C., area who were brought to a drive-through COVID-19 testing site in the spring with relatively mild symptoms. Overall, roughly 20% of the children tested positive. But just about 7% of white children tested positive, whereas 30% of Black children and more than 45% of Latinx children did. The median age of kids who tested positive was 11 years.
The findings also suggest there are marked income-based disparities in COVID-19 infections among American children.
Using national data to estimate median family income of the locations where each child in the study lived, the researchers concluded that less than 10% of children whose families were in the top income level tested positive. Nearly 40% of those in the bottom quartile tested positive.
“What we’re finding with respect to disparities is very consistent with what we’re seeing in adults,” study researcher Dr. Monika Goyal, associate division chief in the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., told HuffPost.
“Although we can’t extrapolate this to what’s happening nationally,” she cautioned, “I do think if a national study were to be conducted, we would probably find similar trends.”
Racial and economic health disparities in the U.S. are well-documented and deeply entrenched. But researchers and public health officials have argued that COVID-19 has made them even more urgent. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said the pandemic flashed a “very bright light” on “unacceptable” health disparities in the U.S. and has emphasized that there are no biological reasons why Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than white Americans.
Outcomes among children who come down with COVID-19 have been one relatively bright spot in the pandemic. Kids are certainly not immune to the disease, but they do generally appear to be less likely to become seriously ill. (One important exception is the appearance of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, a rare but serious inflammatory condition some children develop weeks after being exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.)
The new study serves as a snapshot in time, so there is no data on how the children who tested positive at the drive-through testing site ultimately fared. The researchers did not know whether children had any pre-existing conditions. Families were asked about possible exposure to COVID-19 — and there, too, were clear disparities. Black and Latinx children had higher rates of exposure to people known to be infected with the virus.
Ultimately, the new research shows that there is much work to be done when it comes to keeping all children in the U.S. healthy. Chipping away at racial and socioeconomic disparities is a massive, “multifactorial” endeavor, Goyal said — but there are steps that can be taken right now.
For example, public health officials and physicians can ensure there is plenty of “culturally competent” messaging around mask wearing and social distancing, she said. Reaching out to families who are food insecure to help connect them with resources so they do not have to put themselves at additional risk trying to put food on the table is also important.
“I think that COVID has really shone a spotlight on disparities, and I really hope that with that spotlight being shone, this will be a call to action for our society,” Goyal said.
And parents and clinicians should pay close attention to possible signs of COVID-19 in children, which can include fever, runny nose and gastrointestinal issues.