(This is the first installment of a four-part series on community health issues magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic.).
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified a plethora of community health issues that often operate in the shadows.
Issues like food insecurity. Domestic violence and child abuse. Housing instability. Mental illness.
All appear to be on the rise. St. Luke’s care providers have seen it in the emergency rooms and clinics. Social service organizations have noticed, too.
“It’s been really intense,” Women’s and Children’s Alliance spokesperson Chris Davis said, pointing to the past year of challenges.
“Across the board, when you are talking about child abuse, mental health, depression, job losses, not being able to reach support networks, having to stay home, kids not going to school, along with the things that some people are experiencing in terms of domestic violence, everything is elevated. The pandemic has exacerbated everything. It’s frightening for folks.”
While these issues aren’t new, the pandemic has created an unwelcomed storm of emotional and financial stress for countless families.
“We know parents and caregivers are under tremendous pressure,” said Dr. Kendra Bowman, a St. Luke’s pediatric trauma medical director and pediatric surgeon.
“The financial strain from the recession caused by COVID-19, unemployment, working from home while children are present and not having any break from caring for children because schools and many offices are closed can be overwhelming.”
Earlier this year, St. Luke’s awarded more than 60 Community Health Improvement Fund grants to nonprofit organizations across the region supporting Idahoans in need.
St. Luke’s distributes CHIF grants yearly, typically aligning the grants to the most significant health issues identified in its triannual Community Health Needs Assessments. This year, the issues, namely the ones mentioned earlier, that have surfaced in the wake of the novel coronavirus took precedence for funding.
“We are prioritizing our engagement with organizations working to mitigate the effects of the pandemic,” said Dr. Alejandro Necochea, a hospitalist and member of the St. Luke’s Treasure Valley Community Board.
“Together, we are strengthening our communities’ safety nets while addressing the social determinants of health.”
The first area of focus we will take a look at is domestic violence and child abuse.
In the months following the first identified COVID-19 case in Idaho, St. Luke’s Children’s has seen a sharp uptick in child abuse severity, including deaths.
In 2020, St. Luke’s CARES (Children at Risk Evaluation Services) conducted 107 inpatient consults, ranging from physical abuse and neglect to some accidental injuries. This marked a near 50% increase from the previous year.
Five child fatalities in the last year were attributed to abuse or neglect, including one in February.
Before that, the most recent related death St. Luke’s Children’s and CARES could find in the records was in 2017.
St. Luke’s Children’s has also seen an increase in pediatric trauma cases. Twenty-eight children were admitted to the hospital in 2020 with physical injuries. The injuries were much more severe than the care team would have traditionally seen, hospital officials said.
“It’s been extremely difficult. We expect to have (accidental) injuries in children … but when we have injuries that were inflicted onto them and they are not necessarily able to speak for themselves, we have to do that for them,” said Dr. Allison Gauthier, an emergency department physician.
With many schools working remotely or hybrid, there are likely fewer opportunities for abused children to seek out a safe adult to talk about it or for someone to notice the signs.
St. Luke’s is now partnering with the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund, Idaho Resilience Project and others to launch a child abuse prevention campaign and a resource hotline for parents.
“The message is simple, yet powerful. We want parents to understand we all make mistakes. We all struggle. None of us are perfect parents,” said Roger Sherman, executive director of the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund. “Raising kids during COVID is tough and we know everyone needs help sometimes. We want parents to know they’re not alone and asking for help for their kids’ sake is a strength.”
“We want families to know we are here to support them,” said Dr. Gauthier.
Across Idaho, St. Luke’s supports a variety of organizations on the front lines of child abuse and domestic violence, ranging from the Nampa Family Justice Center to Faces of Hope Victim Center.
The Women’s and Children’s Alliance, a key leader in the domestic violence prevention and support arena, received more than 2,200 calls on its domestic violence hotline in 2020. This was up from 1,216 in 2019, an 84% increase, as reported by the Idaho Statesman.
“As we look back at our numbers in 2020, we have had unprecedented requests for services, significantly higher than we have ever had in the past,” said Chris Davis of the WCA.
Earlier this year, St. Luke’s awarded a $25,000 grant to the WCA to support the nonprofit organization’s outreach, prevention and engagement efforts.
“Because of our corporate pillars and community partners like St. Luke’s that we able to continue to provide services and meet this increased demand without skipping a beat,” Davis said.
-- St. Luke’s public relations manager Anita Kissee contributed to this story.
Daniel Mediate works in the St. Luke’s Communications department.