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Experts say young adults are more likely to gather in groups and not follow COVID-19 safety protocols. Capuski/Getty Images
  • New research shows that people under 24 are developing COVID-19 in increasing numbers.
  • Experts say it isn’t surprising that young, college-age adults are driving this surge.
  • Younger people are less likely to develop serious complications, but they can transmit the virus to more vulnerable people, according to experts.
  • Experts say strong messaging that encourages physical distancing and mask wearing is the best way to curb the spread until vaccines are more readily available.

Older adults have been a focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, but new research reports that a younger demographic is becoming more likely to contract the novel coronavirus.

The data, published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, revealed that nearly 3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been reported in people 24 and younger.

The report added that 57 percent of those new cases occurred in people 18 to 24.

The data suggests that the virus is affecting younger age groups at an increasing rate, as the highest incidence occurred during the final week of the review period.

This is bolstered by the findings from a separate study, published in JAMA Pediatrics earlier this month, that found recent hospitalizations among children for COVID-19 were nearly 9 times higher than last spring.

Experts said that while younger people are far less likely to encounter the serious side effects of the disease, these numbers are a cause for concern as COVID-19 cases surged around the country this month.

“In general, younger people — children, adolescents, and young adults — are more socially connected than older generations,” said Dr. Stephen Russell, co-founder of Imanis Life Sciences, a company that designed a scalable and quantifiable COVID-19 neutralizing antibody test.

“Almost by definition, they live in multigenerational households where transmission of the virus [is] much more prevalent,” he said.

Russell added that the 18-to-24 demographic is less likely to adhere to best-practice advice.

“It has been reported that mitigation behaviors, such as social distancing, wearing masks, and avoiding crowded spaces, is lowest among people between the ages of 18 and 29,” he told Healthline.

“They’re more likely to be asymptomatic and can easily unknowingly transmit the virus to others,” Russell said. “Many young adults also know that their risk of lethal infection or developing long-term health problems as a result of the virus is very low, which decreases their anxiety about getting sick and lends them less reason to adhere to COVID-19 recommended practices.”

Dr. Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, said the surge in cases among the college-age demographic isn’t surprising.

He added that appropriate messaging can make a difference.

“Look at other aspects of health promotion such as eating, drinking, safe sex, and so forth,” Plante told Healthline. “There is lots of research in this area, and, in a nutshell, social engineering is our best bet. You need to offer both carrots and sticks, but design an environment to maximize health behavior compliance.”

Plante pointed out that policies such as “no mask, no service” can act as a stick, while offering rewards to those who get vaccinated can act as a carrot.

“Social engineering is really where the action is, since you really can’t rely on people, especially young college students, to do everything right when it comes to COVID-19,” he said.

For those who are frustrated by college students throwing big parties, it’s best to avoid shaming and blaming, Plante said.

He said that he engages in thought exercises with his students in an effort to get them to see a different side of the pandemic.

“I try to get them to take the role of, perhaps, an older brother or sister, and ask them how they might encourage their little brother or sister to behave better and take the restrictions seriously,” he said.

“I might ask them to pretend that they are Dr. Fauci and how he might talk to college students about the virus,” Plante said. “I also remind them that it would be a terrible burden to carry to have passed the virus to someone, like a grandparent or parent, who later dies.”

With more than 24 million COVID-19 cases in the United States, there’s light at the end of the tunnel with the promise of vaccines that will help get things under control.

However, the two leading vaccines present problems when it comes to the younger demographic.

“The big problem right now is that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are only approved for individuals over the age of 16 and 18, respectively,” Russell said.

“As such, the only way to protect schoolchildren is for them to practice social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing, and then testing and quarantining when symptoms appear,” he said. “Approval of either or both vaccines for this younger demographic would be a significant advancement.”

Although younger people aren’t yet approved to get either vaccine, they’re unlikely to be seriously affected by the virus.

If older adults they interact with are vaccinated, younger people will still be somewhat protected, Russell said.

“I think it’s important to remind younger people that pandemic control is not a political thing,” he said. “Everybody is threatened and everybody wants to get rid of it, regardless of political persuasion.”