Success in lowering COVID-19 infection rates continues to be uneven and erratic across the country, but a clear trend has emerged: Young people account for more new cases than any other age group.
In a study released Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the median age of people who test positive for the virus has been declining since the spring. Now there are more Americans aged 20-29 testing positive for COVID than in any other age group; from June to August, that demographic consistently counted for over 20 percent of confirmed cases. (In May, people in their 20s made up 15.5 percent percent of confirmed cases nationally, while people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s each accounted for a little over 16 percent.)
The report also claimed to show “preliminary evidence” that young adults contribute to community spread that winds up infecting older adults, citing examples from southern states, where an increase in young-adult infections was followed by an increase in infections among people older than 60.
The CDC offered several possible explanations as to why infections among young people are increasing. Studies show that while young people can experience the worsts effects of COVID, they tend to have milder cases compared to those who test positive in older age groups; young people with asymptomatic or mild cases may not take necessary social-distancing precautions. As the CDC study says, “Young adults might … be less likely to follow community mitigation strategies, such as social distancing and avoiding group gatherings.”
Clearly, that behavior will have to change in order to rein in the virus. “The findings suggest that if the U.S. wants to get its coronavirus outbreak under control, it will need more cooperation from young adults,” the Los Angeles Times writes about the report, and the study itself suggests that “strict adherence to community mitigation strategies and personal preventive behaviors by younger adults is needed.” Unfortunately, as the study also shows, that isn’t the full story: Another possible contributor named by the CDC is the fact that young adults are more likely to work in service and care industries, some of which reopened over the summer for the first time in months, and which come with a greater risk of exposure. Unless the government pays service industries to stay open and their workers to stay home, young people will continue to show up for work. More often than not, their lives depend on it.
The CDC ruled out more testing as a primary cause of the increase, because the median age of people testing positive started to decline before the median age of those being tested did. Public officials elsewhere — in Philadelphia, for instance — have also suggested that college students returning to school has been a factor in rising COVID cases among young people. The study admits that because college students are split among two different age groups in its model, this is a contributing factor it may have missed.