My Turn, Jennifer Hudson: Pandemic takes toll on children’s health

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 19, 2021

By Jennifer Hudson

The pandemic has taken its toll on children in our community. 

I have been a pediatrician in Salisbury for 22 years and the past year and a half has been the most taxing time I have ever seen for our youth and families. The pandemic created new challenges and exacerbated ongoing challenges for the children in our community.

When the COVID-19 outbreak started and schools shut down, children’s lives were uprooted and spiraled into disarray. Children were faced with fears of the new virus, social isolation and loss of structure. Parents were faced with financial insecurity, fear for their family’s health and juggling working with educating their children at home and covering childcare. The normal structure and routine in children’s lives fell apart. I saw so many children up until 4 or 5 a.m. watching TikTok or playing video games. They were home all day, eating and snacking frequently. They felt isolated from their friends and were dealing with increased family stress.  All of these factors created huge problems in their health. 

Obesity skyrocketed. The lack of quality sleep routine, increased stress and boredom at home all contributed. School sports shut down, gyms closed and children couldn’t run around with friends. I can look at a growth curve for so many children and mark exactly where the pandemic started by when their body mass index increased dramatically. Obesity has been an ongoing challenge in pediatrics, but the pre-pandemic improvements in health were lost and obesity worsened for so many children.

Poverty has always been a big issue in our community, but the pandemic made it worse for our families. The opioid crisis increased dramatically over the past few years. During COVID,  we continued to see ominous signs of this. Women with limited or no prenatal care increased. This happens a lot with maternal substance abuse, but we also saw an increase in women who are just above the cutoff to get Medicaid and can’t afford prenatal care. Limited or no prenatal care can have a devastating effect on newborns.

Food insecurity has also been an ongoing issue for families in our community but it has also increased during the pandemic. To help battle these needs, we added a social worker to our staff several months ago at Salisbury Pediatrics. She quickly started a food bank in our office to hand out boxes of food when families came to the office for appointments because food insecurity was so high. She has also been instrumental helping families access multiple resources in our town.

Children’s mental health is by far the worst area hit by the pandemic. In October, 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in children’s mental health. It was overwhelming on the front lines. Over and over again, I ask a child or teenager how they are handling the stress of the pandemic. Their eyes well with tears. Social anxiety, depression, general anxiety, self harm (cutting) and suicidal ideations are rampant. Quality mental health resources for children have always been limited in our community. The pandemic significantly worsened the crisis. Children now often wait several months to see a psychiatrist, which is unacceptable when a child or teen is in a crisis. Returning to school helped a little with a return to early bedtimes and more routine structure, but we continue to deal with the ongoing mental health effects of the pandemic.

The pandemic has been damaging to families and youth in our community. Our goal is to maximize community resources available to our families and to make others aware of the needs of the children in our community. While COVID-19 is not likely to disappear, we can work together as a community to heal the damage that has been done to our youth. As a pediatrician, I am honored to work in a community where people stand up to the needs of others to help on another. Let’s all continue to work together towards helping our children and their families.

Jennifer Hudson is a pediatrician at Salisbury Pediatrics who helps run a nutrition clinic addressing obesity in our community. She’s worked with Healthy Rowan for the previous couple years as part of Adventure Rowan, an initiative working with obese children and their families teaching nutrition, exercise and lifestyle changes.