COVID-19 is a leading cause of death among US children and teens, study shows

photo shows a saline drip in the foreground and a blurred out image of a child in a hospital bed in the background
A new study examined the number of deaths among U.S. children and teens that can be attributed to COVID-19. (Image credit: Krit of Studio OMG via Getty Images)

COVID-19 was the top infectious disease killer for kids and teens in the U.S. between August 2021 and July 2022, a new analysis shows. It also ranked among the leading causes of death for any reason for U.S. children and teens in the same time period, the researchers determined.

The research, published Monday (Jan. 30) in the journal JAMA Network Open, utilized data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) database, which includes mortality statistics drawn from the death certificates. 

The analysis took into account only deaths where COVID-19 was listed as the underlying, or primary, cause of death, as opposed to a contributing factor. In the study timeframe, 821 people ages 19 and younger died of the disease; that's an overall death rate of about one COVID-19 death per 100,000 people in the age group. 

"COVID-19 deaths constituted 2% of all causes of death in this age group," the researchers reported.

To put this death toll in context, the team pulled child and teen mortality data from 2019, before the pandemic began. In doing so, they checked the National Center for Health Statistics' ranked list of causes of death, where the causes are ordered by the frequency at which they're reported. 

Related: The 'Kraken' COVID subvariant: What to know about quickly rising omicron descendant 

Placed within this list, the rate of COVID-19 deaths in the study period exceeded the rate of influenza and pneumonia deaths in 2019 — reported at 0.6 deaths per 100,000 people — and fell just short of deaths caused by heart disease — 1.1 deaths per 100,000 people. That placed COVID-19 eighth out of the 10 ranked causes of death. 

If the team excluded deaths unrelated to disease, meaning those caused by unintentional injuries, assault or suicide, COVID-19 ranked fifth out of the remaining causes of death. (Unintentional injuries initially ranked second, at 9.1 deaths per 100,000 people, and assaults and suicides ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, at about 3.4 deaths per 100,000 people.)

"Our study period, August 1, 2021, to July 31, 2022, coincides with substantial infection waves of the COVID-19 Delta and Omicron variants," the researchers noted in their report. 

Finally, the researchers looked at the 10 leading causes of death dating back to 2015. They found that the rankings had remained largely unchanged between 2015 and 2021, with the exception of COVID-19 making the list in 2021.

"In this study, COVID-19 was a leading cause of death among individuals aged 0 to 19 years in the US," the study authors concluded. "Our findings underscore the public health relevance of COVID-19 to CYP [children and young people]."

Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.