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Protecting Children During Pandemic Guides Policy at Congressional Hearing

September 22, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Children (Photo via Pixabay)

WASHINGTON — A congressional panel on Wednesday examined whether the federal government’s strategy is appropriate for protecting children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers asked about the potential for vaccinating children, having them return safely to school and whether they should wear masks.

The update they sought from medical experts coincides with plans in Congress for a final vote within days on the Biden administration’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act.

The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which held the hearing Wednesday, is contributing to portions of the bill that touch on children’s health.

Democrats on the subcommittee propose permanently extending funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is currently set to expire at the end of fiscal 2023. CHIP funding could be used for vaccines, treatment of infected children and addressing their behavioral problems.

Other parts of the bill would fund Children’s Hospital Graduate Medical Education, children’s mental health programs and modernization and renovation of behavioral health centers.

COVID-19 has killed about 500 American children. Nationwide, the disease has killed more than 675,000 people, most of them older persons whose immune systems have been worn down by age.

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer says it hopes to win emergency approval by the first week of October from the Food and Drug Administration for a low-dose vaccine that could be given to children as young as five years old. FDA officials are pledging to decide quickly on the Pfizer application as the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads quickly among children.

However, deaths for children from COVID-19 were not the main risk that drew warnings from medical experts at the congressional hearing.

“The pandemic has had severe consequences on the mental health of youth,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., chairwoman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month an alarming rise in child suicides compared with 2019. Suicides for teenage girls are up by 51% and 4% for teenage boys.

The risk of suicide is seven times greater for children than their risk of death by the coronavirus.

They also are exposed to long-term consequences for their education, careers and social skills, according to Arthur Evans, chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association.

“Untreated mental health issues make it more difficult for students to learn and are highly correlated with chronic absenteeism, school failure, and school dropout, which can lead to possible underemployment, financial instability, or involvement with the juvenile and/or criminal justice system,” Evans said in his testimony.

Children are feeling stress from the pandemic at a more intense level than adults but yet the current mental health care system is poorly prepared to treat them, he said.

The current system “relies largely on an ‘acute care’ or ‘crisis care’ model that waits for early symptoms of unmet behavioral health needs to escalate to a point of crisis and reach a diagnostic threshold before treatment is begun,” Evans said.

He was encouraged by a U.S. Department of Education guidance to schools to incorporate the American Psychological Association’s recommendations for good mental health care into school programs as children return from quarantine.

An Energy and Commerce Committee background memo that accompanied the hearing blamed some recent mental health problems of children on “changes in routine, social isolation, disruption of in-person learning, and trauma caused by the illness or loss of family or friends.”

The memo recommended a return to in-class learning as a big improvement.

“According to experts, a return to in-school learning may help mitigate many of the social and mental consequences of the pandemic, though they also concur that this must be done safely,” the memo says.

An emphasis on returning children to school won further endorsement from Lee Savio Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Schools and school-supported programs are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being,” she said.

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