- Young adults are accounting for a large share of new cases of COVID-19.
- Although younger adults are less likely than older adults to develop severe infections, some of them do develop serious and even life threatening symptoms and complications.
- Experts say that young people may also spread the disease to older relatives.
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Reported rates of COVID-19 are dropping in some parts of the country — but in many southern and western states, the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes the disease is rapidly spreading.
Officials in many of those states have also drawn attention to the large proportion of cases being reported among young adults.
For example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told the press last weekend that COVID-19 cases in Florida are “shifting in a radical direction” toward adults in their 20s and 30s.
Similarly, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told media earlier this month that most people who are testing positive for COVID-19 in some Texan counties are now under the age of 30.
Young adults are also accounting for a large share of new cases reported in North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, California, and multiple other states and municipalities.
“I really want young people to understand that this can be very serious for them, and, of course, it can be very serious for their loved ones who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s,” Dr. Matthew Heinz, a hospitalist who’s been treating patients with COVID-19 at Tucson Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona, told Healthline.
“It’s important that these folks understand that they are part of the solution, so we need their help with following the masking guidelines, social distancing, and being aware,” he added.
Multiple factors may account for the rising rates of COVID-19 reported among younger adults — including expanded testing capacity and criteria.
“I do believe that it’s related to the number of tests that we are doing,” Dr. Frank Esper, an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s in Cleveland, Ohio, told Healthline.
In the early days of the pandemic, limited testing capacity restricted health officials’ ability to test for the virus and disease in people with mildly symptomatic and asymptomatic infections.
Officials had to focus their early testing efforts on cases that involved serious symptoms, which are more likely to develop in older adults with COVID-19.
“Now that we’re able to expand our testing, we’re able to test different age groups much more freely,” Esper said.
“As such, we’re recognizing that there are young adults and children who are getting infected,” he added.
In addition to the role that expanded testing may play, age-related differences in risk-taking might also be shaping COVID-19 trends.
“Every individual is different, but generally speaking, I think it’s fair to say that young people tend to be less compliant with interventions like social distancing, quarantining in place, and mask use in public spaces,” Healthline heard from Dr. Jason Kessler, MPH, an infectious disease specialist at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, New Jersey.
“Differences in risk aversion between the older population and the younger population, in combination with particular states’ or municipalities’ approach to control of COVID-19, I think plays a big role,” he continued.
Heinz likewise suggests that younger people may be eager to “go back to the way things were,” particularly as states and municipalities push to reopen economies and ease coronavirus restrictions.
“The number of reopenings that we’ve seen in a lot of these states that maybe weren’t actually ready to reopen — like Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri — a lot of these places kind of blasted open prematurely,” he said.
If rising rates of reported COVID-19 cases were due only to improved testing and detection, then hospitalization rates likely wouldn’t change much.
But, in fact, several states in the South and West are also reporting record highs for COVID-19 hospitalizations. This suggests that a true increase in infections is occurring there.
Older adults are much more likely than younger adults to be hospitalized with COVID-19. However, even a small increase in hospitalizations among younger adults could pose a significant burden in municipalities where intensive care units are nearing or already exceeding capacity.
For example, health officials in Arizona reported that 88 percent of their state’s adult intensive care unit beds were in use on Wednesday.
“We’re barely meeting the needs of our community right now,” Heinz said, “and with the curves going up the way they are, it’s not real clear to me how many more days or weeks we’re going be able to sustain this kind of exponential growth.”
Although younger adults are less likely than older adults to develop severe infections of COVID-19, some of them do develop serious and even life threatening symptoms and complications.
“I’ve admitted a 22-year-old, a 26-year-old, a 30-year-old to the hospital,” Heinz said, “so it definitely does affect a certain percentage of these folks.”
Even when younger adults only develop mild or asymptomatic infections, they may pass the virus on to older adults and other vulnerable community members who are at high risk for complications.
To help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in high-risk populations, Kessler says it’s important for younger adults to practice preventive measures.
For example, they should maintain at least 6 feet (2 meters) of distance between themselves and people from other households, wear a face mask in public places, and wash their hands regularly.
“We have to be very clear that what you do affects other people, and those people may not have it so easy as you,” Kessler said.
“We really need to get the message out that it’s the responsibility of all of us, a sort of shared responsibility, to take care of our community and our society at large,” he added.