Kyran Wright, 7, climbs on the playground at Fairmount Park Wednesday morning after Bangor Parks and Recreation employees took down caution tape that had been used to close the city playgrounds due to the coronavirus. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

The impact of the current coronavirus pandemic on child health is dramatic and historical. While initial evidence suggested that children were largely spared dangerous health complications, many experts now recognize other, serious fallout of the pandemic.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has worked to identify and address what elements of health and well-being are critical for children, especially with the COVID pandemic. Core elements necessary for children to thrive are termed “Social Determinants of Health,” because they play key roles in health care outcomes. These have been disrupted by the pandemic and disproportionately borne by minority communities in the US. The United Nations released a policy brief in April 2020 that outlined similar global concerns.

The World Health Organization (WHO) d efines Social Determinants of Health as “conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” Adverse conditions that contribute to the determinants include poverty, food insecurity and poor access to quality health and education. The tsunami of physical, psychosocial, and emotional health problems that result from disparities in the determinants is looming, not only here at home in Maine, but also around the world. The U.S. should make an investment to better address the social determinants of health.

Before the pandemic, the percentage of Maine’s children in poverty was 14.8, with African American and Native American children experiencing the highest rates. Worsening food insecurity and economic hardship for children is foreshadowed, because over 100,000 Mainers have applied for unemployment during the COVID pandemic.

To help, all Mainers should respond to the U.S. Census, because when more kids are counted, more money will flow to local communities. This can help our Legislature make an investment to eliminate childhood poverty in Maine.

Maine children have fallen behind on preventative care and immunizations during COVID. In April, COVID caused delays in routine well child visits, which subsequently led to lower vaccination rates and fewer screens for mental health. Additionally, Maine children struggle with high levels of emotional issues, when even before the pandemic Maine youth were reported to experience the highest percentage of anxiety disorders in the U.S.

To help remedy this, to assist youth with mental illness, Maine was awarded a federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant to enhance access to child psychiatry care in the primary care setting. Our Legislature should move to set aside funding for this program to continue once the grant has expired, as some of our New England neighbors (Massachusetts and Connecticut) have done.

COVID has disrupted childhood education and support services. This has disproportionately impacted lower income and minority communities. School systems without adequate resources have struggled to provide necessary equipment and services to support education in nimble and innovative ways, required in the current pandemic. Our Legislature should make investment in childhood education a top priority.

Investment is the best way to battle adversities associated with the social determinants of health. The Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics proposes adopting a strategy similar to that of the WHO, where children are placed in the forefront of all policies, particularly when moving toward COVID recovery. Adequate funding needs to be directed toward enhancing childhood wellbeing, physical and emotional health and quality education.

To emerge stronger as a state, we need to offer our children a brighter future. This is done by examining social determinants of health, reducing disparities, investing in prevention, and building better health and educational supports for Maine’s youth and families. This is important for us to understand, because children are our future workers. For a state and a nation to strengthen, its children need to be supported.

Voting to invest in Maine children is the best way to prevent adversities associated with the social determinants of health. Protect children to preserve our future. Remember kids when you vote.

Dr. Deborah Hagler lives in Harpswell and is the president for the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Janice L. Pelletier lives in Orono and is a past president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.