Silent Spreaders: Almost Half of the American Parents Kept Children’s COVID-19 Status Secret
A nationwide study, led by the University of Utah scientists, has found that over a quarter of surveyed parents admitted to being dishonest about their children’s COVID-19 status or disregarding preventive measures during the pandemic. The most frequently cited reasons for such behavior were the inability to take time off work to care for their unwell children and the desire to make health care decisions for their children without external influence.
Furthermore, some parents of younger children even went as far as lying about their child’s age to receive the vaccine.
The findings were published in JAMA Network Open today.
According to Angela Fagerlin, Ph.D., who is the chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at U of U Health and senior author of the study, the discovery is alarming because it suggests that parental hesitancy to acknowledge their child’s illness or failure to follow COVID-19 prevention measures may have contributed to the spread of the disease and exacerbated the high rates of hospitalization and mortality.
“The [COVID] pandemic created tremendous stress for all of us, particularly parents,” remarks co-first author Andrea Gurmankin Levy.
Levy suggests that parents, like everyone else, were concerned about contracting COVID-19 or losing their employment. However, they also had the added challenge of balancing their work responsibilities while their children were at home in isolation. As a result, some parents may have misrepresented their child’s COVID-19 status or not followed testing or quarantine guidelines to alleviate some of this pressure.
This new study is a continuation of earlier research conducted by the same team, which found that four out of every ten American adults misled others about their COVID-19 status or adherence to public health measures aimed at controlling the disease.
The original study included a subset of 580 participants who identified as parents or guardians of children under 18 living with them during the pandemic. These participants were asked additional survey questions about the COVID-19 decisions they made on behalf of their children.
It’s important to note that the researchers caution against comparing the findings of the two studies since the questions posed to the parents were different and focused solely on their children.
Parents had many reasons to lie to their children
About 26% of parents lied in some way about their child’s COVID-19 status. Among them:
- When they wanted their unvaccinated children to engage in an activity that required vaccination, nearly 60% of parents admitted to lying to others about their child’s immunization status.
- More than 50% of parents who admitted to lying about their child’s COVID-19 or ignoring public health advice said they did so because they wanted the freedom to decide what was best for their family.
- Over 43% of parents reported hiding their child’s COVID-19 diagnosis so they wouldn’t have to miss work or school.
- A third of parents (35%) who had children with COVID-19 did not reveal it because, in part, they could not afford to take time off work to care for them.
“Based on our study, it appears that many parents were concerned about their children missing school, and as a parent of three school-aged kids, I can understand that,” adds Fagerlin. “Yet, at the same time, they’re potentially exposing other kids to a serious illness. So, it’s tricky because what you might think is best for your child might not be best for other children in the classroom.”
According to the study, some parents deceived others in a manner that was unlikely to do damage. For example, some parents misled medical staff into believing their kid was older than they really were in order to have them vaccinated.
According to Fagerlin, parents may have believed that lying about their child’s age was beneficial since it would keep them healthy, protected from the virus, and maybe protect others around them.
“But there was a cut-off age for a reason. The vaccine hadn’t been tested in younger aged children and it wasn’t clear that it would be safe or effective for them.”
The study had a gender bias, with roughly 70% of the participants being women. This skew in demographics is a crucial factor to consider while interpreting the findings, as per Alistair Thorpe, Ph.D., co-first author of the study, who is a former post-doctoral student at U of U Health and currently a post-doctoral research scientist at University College London.
Moreover, the researchers suspect that some participants might have provided inaccurate information while answering the survey.
“Lying about lying is certainly a possibility,” Fagerlin adds. “If anything, 26% is probably the minimum number of parents who misrepresented their children’s COVID-19 status during the pandemic.”
To maintain public health in the future, academics believe that health authorities will need to design regulations and technology that do not rely on the honor system or threaten privacy.
Levy suggests that it’s crucial to establish better support mechanisms, such as paid sick leave for family illness, to ensure that parents don’t feel compelled to engage in misrepresentation or disregard public health guidelines in the event of a future infectious disease outbreak that is comparable or greater in magnitude than COVID-19.
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