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Living with diabetes was already difficult for children. COVID has made things worse

For many families of kids with diabetes, returning to normal life as states reopen is not an option. A recent study from the University of South Alabama found diabetic kids’ average blood sugar levels increased during quarantine — likely due to a change in routine, lack of exercise and increased stress. The worst outcomes were among Black and economically disadvantaged children. John Yang reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As states climb their way out of the pandemic, it's tempting to think that, in some ways, we can put the last year-a-half behind us and move on.

    But for many families of kids with diabetes, that's not an option.

    As John Yang reports, COVID-19 has left a lasting mark on both their physical and mental health.

  • John Yang:

    Numbers are a big part of nine-year-old Jackson Scamehorn's everyday life, not his video game scores. He's focused on his blood sugar levels.

    Jackson Scamehorn, 9 Years Old: I'm at 203 right now, going up, which that's high.

    Heather Scamehorn, Mother of Jackson Scamehorn: Every night lately, you have been going high.

  • John Yang:

    Jackson has type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that prevents his body from making insulin. That's the hormone that regulates sugar, or glucose, in the bloodstream.

  • Heather Scamehorn:

    You have to do your short-acting.

  • John Yang:

    Each morning, he and his mom, Heather, carefully calculate how many sugars and carbs he can eat throughout the day, and how much insulin he will have to give himself to process them.

  • Jackson Scamehorn:

    For me, 20 carbs is about one unit, and then 30 is one-and-a-half units.

  • John Yang:

    So, it's a constant balancing act between blood sugar and insulin?

  • Heather Scamehorn:

    Yes.

    This is once he was in ICU.

  • John Yang:

    Jackson's diabetes was diagnosed in February.

  • Heather Scamehorn:

    It was about 9:00 p.m., and then I took him into urgent care.

  • John Yang:

    He'd been lethargic and nauseous. Tests found that his sugar levels were dangerously high.

  • Heather Scamehorn:

    The doctor said: Actually, his numbers are worse than we thought. He has cranium inflammation and he's in diabetic ketoacidosis. He needs to go to ICU.

  • John Yang:

    Ketoacidosis happens when blood sugar is too high too long.

  • John Yang:

    Ketoacidosis, how high of an alarm does that represent? What's…

    Dr. Henry Rodriguez, University of South Florida Diabetes Center: Code red. It's — because it can lead to coma. It can lead to brain swelling. It could lead to death.

  • John Yang:

    Pediatrician Henry Rodriguez is clinical director at the University of South Florida Diabetes Center. He says, during the pandemic, more kids have showing up in emergency rooms with dangerously high glucose levels.

  • Dr. Henry Rodriguez:

    If you think about the amount of time pre-COVID that children spend at school vs. at home, at school, they're in fairly a fairly structured environment. You know, caretakers, teachers recognize if Sally, for instance, is getting up repeatedly to go use the restroom.

    Well, that's a cardinal sign potentially of a high blood sugar and diabetes.

  • John Yang:

    Stress can also raise glucose levels. And Jackson's mom says remote learning was very stressful.

  • Heather Scamehorn:

    He had a lot of anxiety switching classes, switching teachers. It didn't cause, I don't think, but it might have raised his glucose numbers because of the stress and put him into diabetic ketoacidosis.

  • John Yang:

    Thirteen-year-old Hailey Platz was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 4. She says this past year has been awful.

    Hailey Platz, 13 Years Old: I have been a straight-A student my whole entire life. My grades dropped. I struggled to pass this year because it was COVID, and I'm better at school. Like, I do way better at school. And my depression was just — I had no motivation or anything.

  • John Yang:

    Normally, Hailey would be looking forward to diabetes summer camp, a chance to connect with other kids with diabetes.

  • Hailey Platz:

    They can relate a lot. And you don't feel like you're the only person going through it.

  • John Yang:

    But, this summer, camp is online only.

  • Hailey Platz:

    When I found out that was canceled, like, I was devastated, obviously.

  • Julie Reich, Psychologist:

    During COVID, we were all told, stay safe, isolate, withdraw. Those are the opposite of what I would recommend to someone who's attempting to properly manage both their mood and their anxiety and their diabetes.

  • John Yang:

    Psychologist Julie Reich says, even before the pandemic, children with type 1 diabetes were more likely to suffer depression. And COVID has only made things worse.

  • Julie Reich:

    If and when you're depressed, it's still an issue or problem, in the sense that you frequently neglect a lot of self-care.

  • Hailey Platz:

    Sometimes, when, like, I go super high and my insulin is running out and my pump dies, I feel like, oh, I can just do in a minute, but turned into like hours, maybe a day, and I just didn't do it. And my pump just shuts off, and I go super high.

  • John Yang:

    It sounds like it's almost like a cycle. You feel badly, so you don't take care of yourself.

  • Hailey Platz:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    As a result of that, your blood sugar — you feel badly, and it just sort of compounds on itself.

  • Hailey Platz:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    A recent study from the University of South Alabama found diabetic children's average blood sugar levels increased during quarantine, likely due to the change in routine, more snacking, lack of exercise, and increased stress.

    The worst outcomes were among Black and economically disadvantaged children. That's worrisome because high glucose can lead to long-term health complications, like heart disease and nerve damage.

    Heather Platz, Mother of Hailey Platz: They tried to send us hypoallergenic pumps.

  • John Yang:

    The pandemic has also caused a strain on parents. Hailey's mom, Heather Platz, who also has type 1 diabetes, has been racking up extra hours as a hospital nurse because of COVID.

  • Heather Platz:

    I get the text messages, the e-mails about them being short-staffed all the time. And it's balance between, like, wanting to help them out, needing the money to get the overtime and being home for my family.

  • John Yang:

    The money helps pay the high price of managing her and Hailey's diabetes. Even with insurance, vital medical supplies can cost thousands of dollars a year.

    Platz considers herself one of the lucky ones because she has insurance. The American Diabetes Association estimates that, during the pandemic, 12 percent of people with diabetes had their health insurance disrupted by job loss, and 25 percent rationed medical supplies to save money.

  • Heather Platz:

    It shouldn't be like, oh, your insurance isn't as good or you're not — you're underinsured, so you can't have these fancy gadgets that could save your life. You know, it's just not fair.

  • John Yang:

    Since his diagnosis, Jackson Scamehorn has become pretty good at harmonizing his sugar intake with insulin injections to keep his blood sugar stable. That's allowing him to do more of the things he loves, like playing in the pool with his little brother, Landon (ph).

  • Jackson Scamehorn:

    I can last five hours outside now.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jackson Scamehorn:

    About five hours before I want to lay down now.

  • John Yang:

    Helping him get back in the swim of things.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Tampa, Florida.

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