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Are the kids alright? A global research alliance tracks the pandemic’s fallout

Are the kids alright? A global research alliance tracks the pandemic’s fallout

Picture of Giles Bruce
A girl in the cafeteria of Medora Elementary in Louisville in March 2021.
A girl in the cafeteria of Medora Elementary in Louisville in March 2021.
(Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The pandemic may eventually subside but health reporters will be writing about the impacts of COVID-19 well into the future, aided by researchers who are already gathering a bevy of data points to cite in those stories.

One place journalists may want to watch is COVGEN, a global research collaborative studying families with young children during the pandemic. Research is increasingly showing that maternal stress can be passed down generationally, so the reverberations from the past 18 months could be felt by kids for decades to come (even as the U.S. birth rate fell in 2020).

I recently talked to Moriah Thomason, the founder of COVGEN and an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University, about what the research alliance has already learned and what we might expect from it and other pandemic researchers in the future.

“By having a conversation that's beyond the walls of your own research group, you're necessarily exposed to things that you may not have pulled in,” Thomason said. “It's one thing to say we can recruit 300 women in New York City. It's another to say we're going to be part of an initiative that will recruit 5,000 across the world. And we've laid a foundation for that kind of cooperative science.”

Among the researchers’ hundreds of projects spanning five continents, several of which are being funded by the National Institute of Health, include a pandemic-related questionnaire that has been sent out to 30,000 women (in 10 different languages) across the world; a study of more than 1,000 women in New York who were either pregnant or new mothers amid COVID-19; and an investigation of the long-term health effects of coronavirus infection.

“COVID exposed many weaknesses in our approach to health care and medical research,” said Vidya Rajagopalan, an assistant professor of research in the department of radiology at Children's Hospital Los Angeles who is not affiliated with COVGEN. “A global alliance like COVGEN is important so we can clearly study disparities in health, health care accessibility, and other issues regarding outcomes for children. One of the most important parts is that this study makes the materials available to all of the researchers so it can be replicated across the globe.”

The research on new moms in New York, known as the COVID-19 and Perinatal Experiences, or COPE, study, is analyzing how they dealt with perinatal care disruptions caused by the pandemic and whether those will have any lingering imprints on their kids. The project will track the children up to age 3.

“It is very important to follow the children of mothers pregnant during the pandemic and give them appropriate early intervention where appropriate,” said Vivette Glover, a professor of perinatal psychobiology at Imperial College London who is also not affiliated with the collaborative. “Most children will not be affected, but early intervention is important for those that are. Research on all this is most important.”

An early finding from more than three dozen researchers led by cognitive scientist Denise Werchan at NYU is that women who actively engaged in self-care activities like taking baths, meditating and reading during the perinatal period had better postpartum outcomes — even if they mixed in less healthy coping strategies like social media and eating comfort foods.

“There's a silver lining here because so much of the media coverage of the pandemic is that this is a mental health pandemic. There's a lot of panic and fear being propagated by studies,” said Thomason, a member of the research team. “What I really liked about (this) work is that it suggests that there are choices we can be making in challenging times that can promote better outcomes. That type of research is really important, especially when you're talking about a worldwide stressor.

COVGEN researchers have also found that people’s stress from being discriminated against and their perceived status in society is associated with how severe and enduring their COVID-19 symptoms are. “If you look at something like, ‘Does income predict how many lasting neurological symptoms you have?’ — the answer is no,” Thomason explained. “But if you look at an individual’s perceptions of their own (socioeconomic status), those do predict lasting symptom complaints.”

Study participants were asked where they would place themselves on an economic ladder, and to rate the stress they feel from various types of discrimination. “Individuals are carrying around this additional burden that is physically taking a cost on their body and their health,” Thomason said.

Catherine Monk, a professor of medical psychology in the OB-GYN and psychiatry departments of Columbia University Irving Medical Center who is working with COVGEN, told me that while decades of research suggest that a sweeping stressor like the pandemic could affect the growing brain, researchers need to be cautious.

“Early development is very malleable, so adverse effects may, in essence, be eliminated by positive postnatal environments,” she said. “We do not want to add further stress to what parents already are experiencing.”

She also pointed out that much of COVGEN’s child results to date have come from reporting by parents, so it could just reflect their negative mindsets during the pandemic. Monk also noted that a lot of the data so far has come from online surveys and thus could be excluding people without good internet access.

Thomas G. O’Connor, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Wynne Center for Family Research at the University of Rochester Medical Center who is not part of the alliance, noted that COVGEN is one of several such multisite projects. Another example is a recently announced NIH study tracking long COVID.

“That there are many studies tackling this important issue is surely good news, although we — consumers, parents, clinicians, scientists — also now need to collate and compare findings from different large-scale studies that use different methods and target somewhat different key questions,” O’Connor said. “Interpreting findings across studies is something that we now need to get used to, but the clear good news here is that the clinical science community is being responsive to this health crisis.”

COVGEN’s Thomason and I are both parents, and we both noted how much more time we spent with our families in the past year and a half, and the bonding this can foster. In her surveys, she’s found that mothers and fathers feel like they’ve been giving up more of their life for their children, but they’re more satisfied with the care their kids are getting — ostensibly because they’re providing more of it.

“We have accepted more responsibility in this time, but we're also feeling better about the experiences our children are having,” she said.

Thomason is a developmental neuroscientist who has studied how prenatal stress in women can affect the brain connectivity of their fetuses. She’s also an optimist.

“For me, there's a real concern that all of the hypotheses that we're testing are that this pandemic is having a really negative impact on our society,” she said. “I would really like to be part of the research that tests the null hypothesis: that kids are doing just fine, that parents are parenting, that we are smarter and more knowledgeable in the wake of this crisis.

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