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In-Depth: ER visits for children plummets during pandemic, and that's a bad thing

Doctors say kids aren't getting vital medical care
Posted at 4:00 AM, Feb 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-25 11:06:27-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Visits to the ER for children dropped dramatically during the pandemic, and doctors at Rady Children's Hospital say that's bad news for kids' overall health.

A pair of new reports from the CDC analyzed ER data around the country.

In one, the CDC found that, compared to 2019, pediatric ER visits were down 51% in 2020, 22% in 2021, and 23% in January of 2022.

"On the surface, it could look like it was a positive," says Dr. Willough Jenkins, the Inpatient Medical Director of Child Psychiatry at Rady Children's Hospital. "But absolutely, it's a concern."

Instead of being a sign that kids are healthier, Dr. Jenkins says a drop in ER visits means kids aren't getting the medical assistance they need.

She says fear of catching COVID-19 kept many parents and children away from their doctors and ER rooms. Many families also delayed necessary routine care.

A second report from the CDC says the numbers are especially troubling for kids dealing with mental health issues. It found that, while overall ER visits dropped, the proportion of mental health visits rose throughout the Pandemic.

At Rady Children's Hospital, Dr. Jenkins says they saw 3,000 kids in their Psychiatric ER from September of 2020 through August of 2021.

"I absolutely believe we are in a mental health crisis," she says. "We have six beds (in our Psychiatric ER). We are full most of the time. Our inpatient unit is full most of the time."

Nationwide, the CDC says the proportion of mental health ER visits increased by 24% among kids aged 5-11 and 31% among kids aged 12-17 compared to 2019. It was especially troubling among girls.

For parts of 2021 and early 2022, the number of mental health ER visits for girls returned to their pre-pandemic levels, even as overall visits dropped. And girls aged 12-17 "accounted for the largest increases in the number and proportion of visits" compared to 2019.

Dr. Jenkins says Pandemic-related isolation and anxiety hit that group the hardest.

"We know female teens love their groups, love their friendships, love their connections," Dr. Jenkins says. "Those are things that have been very impacted by the restrictions of the COVID 19 pandemic."

In addition to mental health issues, the CDC says Pediatric Emergency Rooms saw higher proportions of visits for chronic diseases like cancer. Dr. Jenkins says that stems from families not going to routine medical appointments for chronic diseases. Because they missed those, many had to go to the ER when conditions got worse.

The CDC also says Pediatric ERs saw more visits for issues like accidental ingestion of drugs and accidental firearm injuries than in 2019. It's a sign that many kids were stuck in unsafe conditions.

"Our reports of child maltreatment and child abuse have actually gone up during the Pandemic," says Dr. Jenkins. "With childcare facilities having been closed, children are left more unsupervised and are more in potentially unsafe home environments when they have been before."

All of that is why Dr. Jenkins and the CDC stress that it's safe to bring kids back to the doctor's office or even the ER if needed.

They say parents should be more vigilant about their kids' physical and mental health as the Pandemic stretches into its third year.

"I think, at this point, we're now in a place where we can manage the risk of the Coronavirus infection," says Dr. Jenkins. "We have state-of-the-art filtration. We have vaccinations. We have masking. We're in a much different place than we were two years ago. So we feel very confident that we can safely treat your child."

As for mental health, Dr. Jenkins says parents should look for warning signs, including difficulty sleeping, difficulty eating, mood swings, stress, giving up hobbies they usually enjoy, increased substance abuse, and thoughts or discussions of suicide.

"If you're a parent, you need to be checking in with your child on how they're doing with mental health," says Dr. Jenkins. "We know that mental illness is preventable. We know that our treatments are effective, and the majority of children with mental health go on to recover and live very full lives."

If you or someone you know needs help, call the San Diego Crisis Hotline at 888-724-7240. You can also contact the County at https://up2sd.org/.