In the four months since the coronavirus pandemic began surging across the United States, doctors and experts have continuously sought to understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus affects humans. Until recently, they believed that older adults, especially those with weak immune systems and pre-existing conditions, faced the highest risk of severe COVID-19 infection.
But now a troubling new trend is developing that throws what doctors know into question: the rate of coronavirus infections in younger adults that require hospitalization is rising.
New Data Suggests Younger Patients Are Vulnerable
In an interview with NPR, Dr. David J. De La Zerba, the director of medical ICU at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, explained his major concern has become the change in patient demographics from old to young.
Compared to two months ago, Zerba said, “they’re younger patients. Their age, last time, was probably around 65. Now, our average age is between 25 to 35, 45 years old.”
But unlike the older adult patients who often have pre-existing conditions, the younger patients are predominantly healthy without any major past medical history.
“And also they get sicker than the previous [wave]. Mortality has not been a major issue because they are younger patients. But I think as the days go on, we might also see a change in mortality,” Zerba said.
CDC Data Shows a Shift in Infection Patterns
The CDC published data on June 19 showing that nearly 70% of people in the U.S who tested positive as of May 30 were actually younger than 60, not older. The median age of U.S COVID-19 patients during that time hovered around 48. In hotspots like Arizona and Florida, however, case counts for younger patients are even more prevalent.
It’s important to note that a portion of this shift is likely the result of increased testing in younger people. At the beginning of the outbreak, when tests were in short supply and experts were still learning about the behavior of COVID-19, only the sickest patients could get a test. Most of those severely sick patients were elderly, so they became over-represented in the data from March and April.
“The more testing we do, the closer we get to the truth,” explained Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida. “What we were doing before was skewed to the oldest ages.”
How Can Young People Protect Themselves?
CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden posted a grave warning on Twitter at the end of June: “With younger age of recent infections in at least some places such as Florida, expect a lower death rate in this wave… until the 20-40 year olds who are infected today go on to infect others.”
As the rate of severe cases of COVID-19 in young people rises, as well as the overall confirmed number of COVID-19 cases in young patients, it’s more important than ever for those in their twenties, thirties, and forties take steps to protect themselves from infection.
Young, healthy people with mild or asymptomatic cases of coronavirus can still be carriers and transmit the virus to others at higher risk of severe infection. By protecting themselves with face masks and social distancing, they can protect others as well.