Times Chronicle & Public Spirit
Report highlights pandemic’s impact on Montco children’s health
County efforts hailed as 'above and beyond'
Not that we needed more evidence to convince us that the COVID pandemic had a broad impact on all our lives, and especially our children’s lives, but consider this one statistic likely to chill the blood of any parent.
During the two school years from 2018 to 2020, Montgomery County saw a 103 percent jump in calls to Pennsylvania’s Safe2Say hotline from kids having suicidal thoughts. The hotline was set up to provide students with a confidential call for help when they are at risk of bullying, selfharm, drug use, or committing suicide.
The data on the calls is characterized, so the above statistic is not a 103 percent increase in all calls, that’s a 103 percent increase in calls just from Montgomery County kids thinking about suicide. Statewide, that increase was only 18 percent.
Prior to March of 2020, 17 percent of Safe2Say calls statewide were for a “life safety matter.” But in the remainder of that year, “37 percent of tips were life safety matters, demonstrating the mental strain the pandemic put on students,” according to a new report from the advocacy group Children First, formerly Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
As this and other data in the report suggest, Montgomery County’s children were feeling the stress of the pandemic and its impacts in major and longlasting ways.
Called “COVID’s Impact on Children in Montgomery County,” the report offers a detailed look not only at the negative impacts of the pandemic here in Montgomery County and in Pennsylvania, but also at what was done right and, from the author’s perspective, why those policies should be continued and expanded to hold onto the social gains made instead of abandoned as the pandemic wanes.
In today’s article, we will examine the pandemic’s impacts on children’s mental and physical health issues, as well as the efforts, that were undertaken to mitigate those impacts.
Let’s start with the deaths.
“Although not one child is known to have died from COVID in the county, nearly 2,400 Montgomery County adults perished, often leaving children without grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and worse yet, one or both parents,” the report begins.
Although children typically escaped the virus’s direct physical impact, “the pandemic itself caused a mental health crisis for children that continues unabated,” the report said.
According to the national Centers for Disease Control, “mental healthrelated emergency department visits spiked 31 percent for adolescents ages 12 to 17 from March 2019 to March 2021. Worse yet, emergency rooms treated 51 percent more teenage girls for attempted suicide than normal between February 2019 and February 2021,” according to the Children First report.
“The CDC also found that tens of thousands of children did not seek medical care for mental stress, but 44 percent of high school students reported feeling ‘persistently sad or hopeless’ during the past year. This may be due to the fact that 29 percent of student respondents reported a parent or adult living in their home lost their job during the crisis,” Children First wrote.
“The schools were closed, people were cooped up in their homes and then there was the stress of the disease itself during the pandemic,” Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First, said during a Sept. 19 press conference to discuss the report. As the pandemic wanes, kids go back to school and day-today life begins to return to something approximating normal, but “it’s not like overnight, the kids all feel better,” said Cooper.
“The availability of quality, culturally responsive mental health services was in short supply for children, especially for those insured by Medicaid or CHIP. The pandemic and its after-effects have exposed the inadequacies of the national, state, and local behavioral health systems, all of which are taking a sustained toll on our children,” the report said.
By way of example, during a recent community meeting in Pottstown, one resident said there is a sixmonth waiting list for mental health services from Creative Health, the nonprofit agency that provides mental and behavioral health services in the area.
Further, Cooper said some private insurance providers refused to pay for certain counseling or mental health services that might have helped avert a patient crisis. So affordability and accessibility were both barriers to Montgomery County children getting the mental health help they needed.
The report praised Montgomery County officials for proposing to use $5 million from its American Rescue Act funds to increase access to school-based mental health services.
“Montgomery County really stepped up beyond the traditional role of county government,” said Cooper. The county’s efforts to address the many areas impacting children during the pandemic “showed understanding of the ecosystem children live in.”
Emma Hertz, strategy director for the Montgomery County Recovery Office, said that some of that federal money will go immediately toward the Montgomery County Office of Mental Health to teach school districts how to access grant resources to increase the presence and availability of mental health resources in schools.
“So often,” said Hertz, “the schools with the most need have the least resources.”
You don’t have to tell that to Emma Odete, a sophomore at Norristown Area High School.
Odete, a PA Youth Vote Ambassador, said there are not a lot of counselors in her school, and many are too busy to establish meaningful relationships with students who can then turn to them when in crisis. When she was feeling depressed, particularly after she caught COVID in school, Odete said she ended up talking to a teacher there with whom she had a good rapport.
She was lucky.
The report praises policy decisions regarding access to health care at the federal, state and Montgomery County level, noting that as a result of those decisions, more than 10,600 Montgomery County children had access to medical care as a result of the expansion of Medicaid.
The expansion of this publicly-funded medical insurance “provided a life preserver for parents who lost their job and, as a result, their health care coverage. In fact, to meet the burgeoning health care needs of all residents, Medicaid enrollment rose by 29 percent in the county compared to the pre-pandemic level,” according to the report.
“During COVID, employment-related health care coverage rapidly evaporated as parents lost their jobs and employers cut costs. With federal aid, Pennsylvania was able to make sure children didn’t fall through the cracks by expanding health care coverage via Medicaid to 200,000 more children, representing a 17 percent increase from February 2020 to February 2022,” the report said.
In Montgomery County during the pandemic, more than 10,600 children, 3,200 of them Black, were newly enrolled in Medicaid on top of the approximately 49,000 Montgomery County children already insured by the program. “This represents a 22 percent expansion in public health insurance coverage for children,” according to the report.
Now, however, there is talk in Harrisburg of scaling back Medicaid expansion, something Children First insists should not happen. “Moderate- and low-income parents need the assurance that their children can rely on Medicaid, thus state and federal funds must continue to be available to ensure the continuity of their health care coverage.” the report’s authors wrote.
The good news on the vaccine front is that Montgomery County residents heeded the advice of the CDC to get vaccinated against the ever-evolving virus. The percentage of county residents fully vaccinated is 12 percentage points higher than the statewide average full vaccination rate.
“The county’s assertive and aggressive efforts to ensure rapid access to COVID testing and vaccinations set it apart in the region and are likely the reason for its relatively high vaccination rate,” the Children First report observed.
Montgomery County’s aggressive efforts included a free COVID drivethrough testing site at Montgomery County Community College operational by March 2020, with six regional testing sites operating within four months of the shutdown and sites across the county by the end of the year.
“Similarly, within weeks of the vaccine’s availability, the county opened its first free vaccination clinic in January 2021, and it aggressively marketed and created additional sites for vaccinations throughout 2021. The county also held a series of public events
in multiple languages to reach non-English-speaking parents to educate them on the safety and urgency of vaccinations for themselves and their eligible children,” according to the report.
Nevertheless, as of April 2022, 35 percent of Montgomery County children over 10 years old and 57 percent of children ages 5 to 9 years old were not fully vaccinated. “Additionally, Black residents of all ages are 13 percent less likely to be fully vaccinated than White residents, while Asian residents are 37 percent less likely to be vaccinated than White residents,” the report said.
The bad news is Montgomery County, like the rest of the country, has seen a drop off in what used to be considered the very routine vaccinations and immunizations required for students to attend school.
“Nearly 2,600 Montgomery County students started school in a provisional immunization status because they did not have the full complement of required vaccines. This equates to a 250 percent jump in the number of children exempted from basic immunizations between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years,” the report found.
The report’s authors wrote that “the county’s expert leadership to push vaccinations during the pandemic must now be directed to reverse the trend of declining adherence to school vaccination protocols.”
Fortunately, they wrote, Montgomery County is a step ahead of the surrounding counties in that is already has a vehicle to accomplish that goal.
“Unique among the five southeastern Pennsylvania counties is the existence of the Montgomery County Immunization Coalition. Since 2003, the Coalition has been raising awareness and organizing stakeholders to ensure adherence to immunization established protocols. The coalition created the AmVaxador program which recruits volunteers and deploys them with resources in several languages to get the word out about vaccine safety and the need for children to receive their immunizations. Since the onset of the COVID crisis, the Coalition held 19 town halls to promote immunization across the county. This work is impressive, and with sufficient resources, it may ensure parents in the county do not fall prey to misleading information about the safety of childhood vaccines.”
The report advocated for continued effort to help recovery moving forward.
“Healing from this pandemic will take much more than a medical solution. It will require federal, state, and local policies and resources to cure the lasting effects of the pandemic on children, and such measures must ensure that the disproportionate needs of children of color are taken
into consideration and addressed,” the authors wrote
“The lessons learned from the virus are many. First among them is the need to ensure every county and the state has capable public health infrastructure. There is ample research indicating that more lives could have been saved if the nation’s public health infrastructure had been more prepared to respond to the sweeping COVID contagion,” according to the report. “The county and local medical professionals will need to be focused on building and funding the Montgomery County Health Department so it can aptly respond and protect residents every day and during the next horrific crisis.”