(Bloomberg) — Hospital emergency room visits for firearm-related injuries swelled in the pandemic, US health researchers said, with the biggest increase seen among adolescents ages 14 and younger.
Average weekly emergency room visits for gunshot wounds rose 37% in 2020 from the year earlier and stayed at about the same level the following year, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Thursday. Hospitals visits for gun injuries were highest among people ages 15 to 24 through all three years.
Firearm injuries have become the leading cause of death among children and teens younger than 19 in the US, where there have already been 131 mass shootings since January, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent, nonprofit data collection group. Earlier this week, 3 children and 3 adults died in a school shooting in Nashville that left Americans reeling and reignited calls for an assault weapons ban.
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Disruptions to daily routines and schooling and limited access to health care may have raised the risk of gun injuries during the pandemic, according to the report. Housing and financial insecurity, threat of illness and uncertainty about the future also may have played a role in the increase, the CDC said. Earlier research has suggested that increased firearm purchases and limited parental supervision during the pandemic may have contributed to the risk for firearm injuries among children and adolescents.
The research is part of an agency push to collect more data on the scope of US gun violence after Congress stymied research on the topic for nearly three decades. There remains no centralized system for tracking nonfatal US gun injuries, and patchwork reporting requirements in states pose additional challenges to the CDC and other agencies investigating the issue.
“We’re used to the Covid environment, but getting data from firearms is more complicated,” Christopher Jones, head of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said at a forum last month.
In response, the CDC has begun using a real-time surveillance program of emergency rooms that was originally aimed at spotting bioterrorist attacks or nuclear events, Jones said in an interview. The network, called the National Syndromic Surveillance Program, collects medical records from about 75% of US emergency departments, helping the agency look for spikes in visits and their causes. The system allows the CDC to get ER data within 48 to 72 hours, Jones said.
Other federal agencies have tried to assess the health-care costs for gunshot wounds. A 2021 Government Accountability Office report found that emergency room care for firearm-related injuries in 2016-2017 averaged about $1,500 per patient, while initial care for those admitted as inpatients averaging almost $31,000, racking up an annual total of $1 billion in initial medical costs alone. Up to 16% of survivors who had an initial inpatient hospital stay were readmitted at least once because of the injury, with those costs averaging $8,000 to $11,000, the report found.
The calculations didn’t include some expenses and were likely an underestimate of the injuries’ true costs, the GAO researchers concluded.
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CDC is studying the effectiveness of measures that may reduce gun violence, such as safe housing, mental health resources and gun storage practices. The agency is also working with local health departments and researchers to link existing databases that can help identify risk factors and new potential prevention strategies.
“There’s usually touch points before someone shows up in the emergency department,” Jones said.
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