COVID-19 Just a Problem for Elderly People, Right? Think Again

image: Daniel Zender

People holed up in their homes to follow the advice of government and health care experts were treated to some jarring newscast video over the past week: spring breakers partying it up on beaches across the country in the middle of a pandemic.

But those who blithely told reporters that they weren’t concerned because they think the virus only affects older adults may be in for a rude awakening: new data shows that a growing number of people ages 20-44 have been hospitalized for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, sometimes with serious results.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging all Americans – and now especially young adults – to avoid crowded spaces and gatherings of 10 people or more, and to continue practicing social distancing. Experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) echo that message.

Taking your chances against the odds

According to the CDC, based on the preliminary report on outcomes for patients in the U.S., the rate of deaths linked to COVID-19 was highest for those over 85 years of age. However, when examining the age range of cases, the largest group with confirmed cases was ages 20-44 years old (29%). Among those hospitalized, adults ages 65-84 years old comprised over a third of patients, but young people were not immune; 1 in 5 of those needing hospitalization were between the ages of 20 and 44 years old. The CDC also reports that in cases with known outcomes, 20% of the deaths occurred in those ages 20-64 years old. In Houston, the health department has reported an infection in at least three individuals between the ages of 15 and 30.

It’s not all about you

Michael Chang, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, said that the preliminary data suggests that disease in patients under the age of 19 results in fewer hospitalizations and severe illness when compared to those over age 20. However, it’s still very likely that someone in that age range may know someone in a high-risk group. “Even if your individual risk of severe disease is low, it would be very unfair for those high-risk patients if your actions exposed them to what could be life-threatening disease,” Chang said.

George Delclos, MD, PhD, a professor at UTHealth School of Public Health, said that young people need to be aware that while the risk of death if they contact COVID-19 is not as likely for young adults, they still risk spreading the illness to their more vulnerable parents or grandparents.

What does high-risk mean?

Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the School of Public Health, says anyone who has an underlying health condition (e.g., chronic lung disease, diabetes, or heart disease), is overweight, is immunocompromised or pregnant, or is over age 65 is classified as high-risk and needs to take social distancing especially seriously to avoid contracting COVID-19.  But everyone, including young people, are at risk.

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