four girls on a swing suspended by chains, they all smile at the camera
Zoom calls can only do so much. New research looks at the effect of isolation on children due to COVID-19. Photo courtesy: Seattle Parks

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By Taylor Knopf

The infant mortality rate in North Carolina has remained stubbornly high in recent years and is one of the worst in the nation. About half of the children in the state live in poverty. And more than 20 percent of kids live in households that are food insecure.

These are some of the reasons Gov. Roy Cooper cited Wednesday when he announced an executive order that directs the state’s Department of Health and Human Services to create an Early Childhood Action Plan.

“We know that a foundation for future learning, health and well-being is built during early childhood,” Cooper said in a press release. “I want all North Carolina children to get off to a strong start in safe and nurturing families and communities, with access to high-quality opportunities to learn, and this plan can help us get there.”

He directed DHHS to present a draft of the plan for public comment by Nov. 1. It will include “targeted goals and strategies” to improve the health of children from birth through age 8.

“We must do more to change outcomes for young children and their families across the state,” said DHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen in the same press release. “The Early Childhood Action Plan will build on existing public and private efforts and develop new strategies to help us make smart, evidence-informed investments for North Carolina’s children.”

DHHS will track outcomes annually based on the set goals and benchmarks in the plan.

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“It’s heartening that the governor is thinking about these things,” said Whitney Tucker, research director at NC Child, an advocacy group that focuses on child health and well-being.

She said the state has led the nation in some areas such as child care, while it struggles with food insecurity and infant mortality.

“We can’t lap up the praise for some of it and ignore other issues,” Tucker said.

North Carolina is 42nd in the nation in infant mortality rates, according to NC Child’s 2018 Child Health Report Card. There were 7.2 deaths per every 1,000 babies born in 2016. Meanwhile, African American infants are 2.7 times more likely to die in their first year of life compared to white infants. And in North Carolina’s 29 Appalachian counties, the infant mortality is 16 percent higher than the rest of the U.S.

Tucker added that infant mortality rates will be really difficult to improve if the state does nothing  to expand affordable health care options.

With the drafted plan deadline fast approaching, DHHS has already begun reaching out to groups such as NC Child that work to improve and track children’s health issues.

“It’s up in the air as to what their goal will be and their strategies for meeting them,” Tucker said.

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...