By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
Gun violence recently surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children.
“St. Louis is not any exception to that,” said Mary Beth Bernardin, MD, assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine and pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. “It felt as though we were seeing children shot more frequently than in the past. And so that’s why I, myself, and a few other doctors from St. Louis Children’s decided to do a study, to kind of dive a little bit deeper into that and see if we could find out if that actually was the case and other ideas why that might be the case.”
Bernardin is the lead author of a study conducted at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. The study shows how the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with the increase in the frequency and mortality of pediatric firearm injuries.
“Not only did the rate of shootings go up, but the lethality went up as well,” she explained. “A lot more children that were shot needed to go to the operating room because of their injuries and needed the pediatric intensive care unit because of their injuries, and the deaths due to shootings went up almost 30%. So, they were very, very serious shootings.”
The data is based on pediatric firearm injury victims taken to the St. Louis Children’s Hospital emergency room, ages zero to 19. The data did not include the children who died at the scene or taken to other hospitals.
“We used something called the trauma registry at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. We looked at the trauma registry during the two years that the pandemic was at its height from 2020 to 2022. And we compared that to the five years prior to the onset of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, we saw six to seven children shot per month. During the pandemic. that went up to over 10 per month on average. That was more than a 50% increase in Children that we were seeing with firearm injuries.”
Bernardin sais the escalation in injuries was driven by a significant increase in firearm assaults and homicides as well as increased frequency of children injured as bystanders during adult crimes.
“The rate of accidental shootings and self-inflicted shootings pretty much stayed the same compared to the five years prior to the pandemic. But it was really the firearm assaults and homicides that went up really significantly. African American communities seems to suffer the worst from this increase during the pandemic. In St. Louis, it was our African American kids that were affected much more so than other ethnicities.”
Another finding revealed three spikes in monthly pediatric firearm assault and homicide rates during the pandemic, each happening within three months of a surge in COVID-19 deaths.
“During times that COVID-19 deaths were really going up, sometimes associated with new COVID-19 variants,” Bernardin explained. “At the same time, or within three months following that increase in COVID deaths, we saw increases in the pediatric gun violence as well. So, the COVID deaths and the gun violence tended to go hand in hand.”
Bernardin believes the study should serve as a call to action.
“Gun violence is completely preventable,” she said. “I hope this study and studies like it would be a call to action to prevent the violence that we can prevent. What we found in St. Louis, future studies are needed, but I think that a lot of cities are suffering from a lot of the same problems. One could infer that in the future, if there are surges from COVID-19 future variants, that could be associated with future increases in gun violence amongst children in particular.”