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St. Louis Children’s Hospital sees rise in gunshot victims as pandemic drags on

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Susannah Lohr
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The monthly number of children and teens being treated at St. Louis Children's Hospital for gun injuries has increase 50 percent since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new study.

More children and teens in St. Louis are being treated at Children’s Hospital for gun injuries since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a study by Washington University and the University of Missouri.

Using emergency room data from between 2015 and 2022, researchers found the average number of people 19 and under treated for gunshot wounds in hospital's emergency department rose by more than 50 percent in the first two years of the pandemic. They found the additional injuries were driven in part by an increase in assaults and homicides.

Many emergency workers had noticed a rise in firearm injuries during the months after March 2020, said the study’s lead author, Mary Beth Bernardin, an emergency medicine professor at Mizzou. The study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery, confirmed that anecdotal evidence.

“A lot of people thought that accidental injuries would be the leading factor, but that's not the case,” Bernardin said. “I do think that probably increased gun ownership and possibly lack of supervision does come into play, but it was really the assaults and the homicides that really drove those injuries.”

Since the pandemic started, the emergency room has treated an average of 10 children with gunshot injuries each month, compared with seven per month before March 2020. The researchers also found that increases in gun injuries and deaths corresponded with surges of coronavirus-related deaths due to more contagious variants.

The increase in gun injuries at Children’s Hospital aligns with national trends. In 2020, firearms became the leading cause of death of U.S. children, beating out car accidents and cancer.

The pandemic-era rise also mirrors a general rise in homicides in St. Louis. In 2020, the city recorded 263 homicides, a record high. The annual number of homicides in 2021 and 2022 stabilized to pre-pandemic levels.

Many children were likely caught in the crossfire of shootings by adults, Bernardin said.

“We really do think that a lot of kids were falling victim to the increased crime rates in general, predominantly increased crime amongst adults,” she said. “We found that the increase that we were experiencing during the pandemic affected our children of color the most, more so than other communities.”

The economic effects of the pandemic are fueling gun violence, particularly in poor neighborhoods, said Dr. Maya Moody, the president of the Missouri Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Close to 90 percent of the victims at Children’s were on Medicaid or out-of-pocket patients, 88 percent were Black, and more than 80 percent were male, according to the study.

“We know that [economic instability] can be a predictor of gun violence,” Moody said. “Kids having more available free time, perhaps less supervision… There are a lot of things we know that probably add a little piece to the puzzle.”

Moody called the report’s findings disturbing and said that more proven deterrents such as gun locks need to be put in place to keep kids from getting shot.

“It's going to be a long haul before things normalize in terms of that economic stability and mental health and wellness,” she said.

St. Louis Children’s Hospital is one of two state-designated pediatric trauma care centers in St. Louis and one of three in Missouri.

The city’s other pediatric trauma center, Cardinal-Glennon Children’s Hospital, has seen increases in gun injuries in children since the beginning of the pandemic, said Helen Sandkuhl, administrative director of nursing, emergency, trauma and disaster Services at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital.

“When we look at the statistics, the city of St. Louis is in a state of emergency when we talk about kids,” Sandkuhl said “The leading cause of death in kids was from accidents — car accidents, balls, different things like that. And now, homicide is the leading cause of death.”

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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