As the number of vaccinations increases and cases of coronavirus fall across the country, many Americans feel a newfound sense of hope that there may finally be a light at the end of the tunnel.
For the first time, patients aged 18 to 64 now account for the largest cohort of the 37,000 total patients currently hospitalized for the virus. With more elderly Americans vaccinated, this marks the third week in which the number of hospitalized individuals in the age group 65 and older has been less than both the age groups 1
“Hospitals are seeing more and more younger adults, those in their 30s and 40s, hospitalized with serious illness,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky reported during a press briefing earlier this month.
Experts say the exact cause of this trend is unclear, but may include the increase in variants, relaxed attitude to distancing and other mitigating measures, a younger population not yet fully vaccinated, and vaccine hesitation. It may also be younger people who get the disease.
Although not all admissions are the result of serious illness, officials say the trend is worrying.
“It seems that there is a very sharp increase in younger adults… these are mostly people who think that their age protects them from getting very sick from COVID-19, it does not happen,” Cassie Sauer, CEO director and president of the Washington State Hospital Association, said during a news conference Monday.
Dr. Chris Baliga, an infectious physician from Virginia Mason Franciscan Health in Washington state, reported earlier this week that he has seen more patients under the age of 40 than at any other time in the pandemic, noting that these younger patients are looking. to get sicker than before.
“40% of our cases were under 40 years old, which is amazing to me. We never saw it before in the pandemic, “Baliga said during a briefing on Monday.
According to experts, this trend may be the result of a number of factors.
Dr. Katie Sharff, an infectious disease expert at Kaiser Permanente, told ABC News that one of the driving factors may be that more people are getting infected, and with that, there will inevitably be more serious cases.
While earlier in the pandemic, the disease affected predominantly older adults, coronavirus infections among Americans 18-54 currently account for the highest proportion of new cases per year. 100,000 inhabitants.
Sharff also said she has seen more patients at her hospital in Oregon between the ages of 40 and 50 in need of hospitalization, with some patients as young as 30 ending up in the ICU and a lower percentage having to be placed on mechanical ventilation.
In Oregon, daily COVID-19 cases have doubled and the number of patients admitted with the virus has increased by 106%.
“If you have so many more young people getting infected, there will be at least a subset that develops serious illness,” Sharff explained. Although some patients have pre-existing medical conditions, such as obesity, what has been “really striking about this increase” is that not all younger patients in need of care have medical conditions that put them at high risk.
Part of the problem, Sharff said, is that younger people, once infected, tend to stay home a little longer to cope with their symptoms unlike older Americans, who have generally been hospitalized earlier in their illnesses.
Because the U.S. vaccination strategy targets high-risk individuals by age, nearly all of these younger inpatients have not yet been vaccinated, Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Northeastern University, told ABC News.
“In previous increases, the majority of our patients were elderly and had chronic medical conditions. We see less of the much older population, and I think that really speaks to the effect of the vaccines, ”Sharff noted.
Earlier this month, all 50 states opened vaccinations to residents 16 years and older, but it will take some time for the younger populations to be fully protected, Scarpino explained.
“With a 4 to 6 week delay between the first dose and the full level of immunity, it will be a few more weeks before these age groups have the same level of protection as the elderly who were vaccinated months before,” Scarpino said.
Vaccine hesitation, pandemic fatigue and variants
But there are other younger people who have chosen not to be vaccinated, Sharff said. “I think the vaccine hesitation is pretty real,” Sharff remarked.
Vaccine demand has fallen steadily in recent weeks as those eager to be inoculated get their shots fired, and officials are working to convince the weaker ones to get vaccinated.
Just over the last seven days, the average number of vaccines administered has dropped by almost 12%, down from the average of 3.3 million doses administered per day, earlier this month, to 2.6 million on Thursday.
According to a recent ABC News / Washington Post poll, nearly 1 in 4 Americans, 24%, are unlikely to receive any of the coronavirus vaccines, down from 32% three months ago. 16% of respondents ruled out vaccination altogether.
In addition, more transmissible and potentially more lethal variants now account for the majority of new cases across the United States. The national prevalence of B.1.1.7, first identified in the UK and now, is now estimated to account for almost 60% of new cases according to the CDC.
“I think that’s what drives a lot of what we see in the younger population,” Baliga said, saying he considered it the “most important” factor strengthening the number.
With more people succumbing to “pandemic fatigue” and thus failing their guard with lax social distancing and COVID-19 protocols, experts say, many also blame their infection on increased social gathering and travel.
In addition, the combination of more infectious strains of the virus with lower vaccination rates has made young people more vulnerable to the virus.
In Massachusetts, coronavirus variants appear to be affecting younger people more severely than previous disease strains last year, with an increasing number of residents in their 20s and 50s hospitalized, government Charlie Baker said during a news conference Monday.
While the risk of COVID-19-related death among young populations remains lower than among older age groups, Baliga reported that there are still some young patients undergoing the virus, which he calls a “preventable disease” with vaccines, he said.
To date, over 86,000 Americans ages 18 to 64 have died from COVID-19, accounting for approx. 19.4% of US virus-related deaths.
Younger people in particular may have the feeling that they are less vulnerable to the disease than the more vulnerable older adults, Sauer said, but they should not assume they are “safe against this disease.”
“Our best way out of this pandemic is to get vaccinated,” Sharff said. “We are all so exhausted, including myself, but just like when you see young people in the hospital die, just look it upside down and say this is genuine. We need to be vaccinated. “
ABC News’ Brian Hartman contributed to this report.