The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released some troubling new statistics in mid-September: The coronavirus is killing Hispanic, Black, and Native American children at much higher overall rates than white children. Of the more than 390,000 known COVID-19 cases and 121 deaths in children and teens that were recorded between February through July, a whopping 75% were minorities—despite the fact that BIPOC children make up just 41% of the United States population.
Of those 121 fatal cases, 45% were Hispanic, 29% Black, and 4% Native American. These numbers should not come as a shock, as studies have found that minority people under the age of 65 are twice as likely to die from the virus.
“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.”
There are several factors to take into consideration for why this is happening.
Minority children are more likely to experience underlying social disparities than white children. That becomes even more crucial during a pandemic. In addition to crowded living conditions, gaps in wealth and education, food and housing insecurity, and reliance on public transportation, minority children may have parents who are essential workers and lack basic family resources such as healthcare, insurance, child care, and paid sick leave.
Another factor may be underlying health disparities. Of the minority children and teens who died of the virus, roughly 75% had at least one underlying condition. The most prevalent of these conditions were asthma and obesity, which tend to occur disproportionately in minority communities.
Williams believes there’s also a possibility that genetic or biological factors could be a factor in the discrepancies, as some diseases can affect certain races differently. For example, pneumococcal meningitis disproportionately affected Black children, while Haemophilus influenzae type b took much more severe a toll on Native Americans.
A small glimmer of hope within the data is that it reinforces the fact that COVID-19 seems to be far less serious among children and teens than adults. Of nationwide coronavirus cases, roughly 3% have resulted in fatalities, compared to just .03% in people under the age of 21. Still, hundreds of thousands of children have been infected.
The key to eventually finding a sustainable vaccine may lie in discovering why the virus affects age groups differently. One piece of emerging evidence suggests that the ACE2 receptor, which the disease uses to enter cells, is found in higher amounts the older an infected patient is. This would likely also explain why the virus is more deadly in people over the age of 65.