Adults younger than 65 make up a sizeable share of patients hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, suggesting that, despite conceptions that the disease is only severe in seniors, younger adults can have severe symptoms, too, according to a CDC report released Wednesday.
However, the study still found that the risk of death from COVID-19 was significantly greater in older adults.
For the study, CDC researchers analyzed data on 4,226 COVID-19 cases from 49 states and Washington D.C. between Feb. 12 and March 16. Patient age was identified in 2,449 of those cases. The data set excluded cases among people repatriated to the United States from Wuhan, China, and Japan.
Younger adults with COVID-19 are being hospitalized, admitted to ICUs
While most warnings about COVID-19 have focused on the risk to people who are older than 60 or have compromised immune systems or underlying diseases, new data shows younger adults are also at risk of contracting the disease.
Adults ages 20 to 44 made up the largest age group of people with COVID-19, the researchers found. Specifically, looking at the age distribution of the 2,449 COVID-19 patients in the United States whose ages were identified, the researchers found:
- 5% were ages zero to 19 years;
- 29% were ages 20 to 44 years;
- 18% were ages 45 to 54 years;
- 18% were ages 55 to 64 years;
- 25% were ages 65 to 84 years; and
- 6% were ages 85 years or older.
In addition, while news coverage of COVID-19 has focused on the risks to seniors, the researchers found that patients younger than age 65 made of a sizeable share of people hospitalized for the disease. Of the 508 patients known to have been hospitalized, CDC said:
- 20% were ages 20 to 44 years;
- 18% were ages 45 to 54 years;
- 17% were ages 55 to 64 years;
- 26% were ages 65 to 84 years; and
- 9% were ages 85 years or older.
Children can get the virus but tend to experience milder symptoms compared to older adults, according to the report. Patients younger than 19 made up less than 1% of COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Meanwhile, non-senior adults also made up a substantial portion of patients who were in need of critical care due to COVID-19. Of the 121 patients who were admitted to an ICU:
- 12% were ages 20 to 44 years;
- 36% were ages 45 to 64 years; and
- 46% were ages 65 to 84 years
- 7% were ages 85 years or older.
There were no ICU admissions among patients younger than 20 years.
There were 44 deaths recorded among the cases, according to the report. Of the people who died:
- Nine were 20 to 64 years;
- 20 were 65 to 84 years; and
- 15 were 85 years or older.
There were no deaths among patients younger than 20 years.
The report did not include information about whether any of the patients had underlying risk factors, so researchers could not determine whether the younger patients hospitalized were already at higher risk of serious infection. Data was also missing for a number of cases, "which likely resulted in an underestimation of the outcomes," according to the authors.
"[This] preliminary data … demonstrate that severe illness leading to hospitalization, including ICU admission and death, can occur in adults of any age with COVID-19," the researchers wrote in the report.
The findings reiterate recent warnings from U.S. health officials that, like older adults, younger adults, too, can get seriously ill from COVID-19. At a White House briefing Wednesday, Deborah Birx, a physician and State Department official, issued an appeal citing reports in "France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill, and very seriously ill in the ICUs," she said.
According to Brix, younger people may be taking fewer precautions to prevent contracting the virus, which could result in a higher number of overall infections and therefore, a higher percentage of serious cases. "There may be a disproportional number of infections among that group, and so even if it's a rare occurrence, it may be seen more frequently in that group and be evident now," she said.
Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health who was not involved in the report, said, "I think everyone should be paying attention to this." He added, "It's not just going to be the elderly. There will be people age 20 and up. They do have to be careful, even if they think that they're young and healthy."
Christopher Carlsten, head of respiratory medicine at the University of British Columbia, who was not involved in the report, said, "[I]f that many younger people are being hospitalized, that means that there are a lot of young people in the community that are walking around with the infection" (Belluck, New York Times, 3/19; Joseph, STAT News, 3/18; CDC report, 3/18).