One of the patterns we’ve seen as the coronavirus pandemic has gripped the world is that children are, fortunately, not likely to experience the worst effects of the virus. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get extremely sick, and in some cases, die. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that when children and young adults do die from COVID-19, they are overwhelmingly children of color.
As USA Today reports, researchers found “staggering racial disparity” among children and teens. Surveying more than 390,000 coronavirus cases and 121 deaths among people under the age of 21, the study found that young Hispanic, Black and Native Americans made up 78 percent of all recorded deaths between Feb 12 and July 31.
The pattern mirrors the way the coronavirus has moved through the United States at large. Previous research found that, for all Americans under the age of 65, the rate of COVID-19 deaths for people of color was twice as high as it was for white people.
To put the latest study in perspective, young Hispanic, Black and Native Americans comprise 41 percent of all people under 21 in the U.S.—a substantial proportion, but by no means a majority.
Researchers also speculated the reasons for the higher rates were likely the same as they were for adults. The CDC report found that 3 out of 4 children who died from COVID-19 had at least one underlying condition, like asthma, obesity and cardiac issues.
But it’s also important to note that those conditions disproportionately affect children of color not for personal reasons, but systemic ones.
The CDC report notes that “crowded living conditions, food and housing insecurity, wealth and educational gaps, and racial discrimination” likely factored into the deep racial divide in COVID-19 deaths. Researchers also pointed to the fact that nonwhite adults are more likely to be classified as essential workers, who are at higher risk of being exposed to the novel virus. Disparities in child healthcare access—such as lack of insurance, childcare, transportation, or paid sick leave—also likely play a role in the higher death rates.
The stark racial disparities are alarming and indicative of how the virus has affected Americans across the country over the last six months. But—particularly as young people across the country return to school, and in some places, in-person instruction—it’s important to emphasize that children still have an extremely low risk of dying from COVID-19. As USA Today writes, young people can certainly carry and pass on the virus, but Americans under the age of 21 comprise “just 0.08 percent of the more than 190,000 deaths reported across the country.”
Still, families across the United States should take note that children—especially Native, Latinx and Black American kids—are not immune to COVID-19. That the racial divide persists across age groups makes clear that the coronavirus is both a racial justice and a public health issue.
“This is the strongest evidence yet that there are deep racial disparities in children just like there are in adults,” John Williams, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh told the Washington Post. “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.”