RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Public health professionals are now getting ready for an influx in families who put off or struggled to access early intervention for their children who may be experiencing developmental delays during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Between birth up to three, we know that 80 percent of a child's brain develops," said Sharon Loza, Branch Head for NC's Infant-Toddler Program (NC ITP). "Research has also shown that intervening at that critical time not only affects brain development, but really can help remedy any delays."
Loza said children with developmental delays who receive early intervention often don't end up needing special education, leading to cost savings for families and society as a whole.
In March of 2020, as the virus began its spread across the state, NC ITP switched to an all-virtual model. Where staff used to go into families' homes to observe and evaluate a child's development-- everything from their speech to walking and brushing their teeth-- staff were now observing through a screen, offering instruction and support virtually.
By April of 2020, the program had seen a more than 50-percent drop in referrals, receiving 1,093 referrals compared to 2,378 it got in January.
"I mean that is dramatic for us," said Loza. "My heart broke because I knew that meant that there were families and children out there we weren't reaching and serving."
To track a child's development, pediatricians, caregivers and parents monitor whether they're reaching specific milestones such as walking, talking, and feeding themselves.
But at the onset of the pandemic, Loza said the majority of referrals that come from pediatricians, dropped off as many families skipped their child's well check appointments; children were no longer in their typical daycare settings and playdates, where parents could more easily observe children's development on display, were also scrubbed as families were isolated in their homes.
Loza said with staff unable to enter children's natural learning environments for face-to-face evaluations, the program's family coaching approach proved to be the most helpful.
"We work with parents to empower them, to educate them, to have us transfer some of that skill and knowledge so they're empowered to do things with their child as well," Loza said.
Now, as COVID cases are on the decline and vaccines are widely available, Loza said the program has seen an uptick in referrals; families are coming back at pre-pandemic levels.
The program's intake, evaluations, and service coordination is still 100-percent virtual, but by January of this year, Loza said about 44-percent of enrolled children were receiving at least one therapy or service, face-to-face through its contract provider network.
Loza said the program is developing guidance right now for a return to in-person evaluations and is hoping to see even more families coming into the program, as the pandemic has taken a unique toll on children.
"COVID has really introduced a lot of trauma to families," Loza said. "We know that trauma also has an impact on children's development-on their brain development- and so while we're seeing some, we're preparing ourselves to really be ready to serve those children and families too because we know the impact is there."