Tuesday, July 7, 2020

COVID-19 Rise in Young Adults

Click on graph to enlarge.

The graph above -- from South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), showing the state's COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population by age group from March 7 to June 20 -- documents a trend we're hearing a lot about. A lot of cases during the recent wave are among young adults.*

According to the above-linked DHEC report, "Since April 4, data from the agency shows that there has been a 413.9% increase in newly reported COVID-19 cases among the 21-30 age group..."

A Vox piece notes that, "Young people, who account for a bigger share of the recent cases, aren’t at nearly as high a risk of dying from the virus, but some small number of them will still die and a larger number will end up in the hospital." Even if young adults' fatality rate is low overall, however, yet another manifestation of societal health disparities is a finding that "Black people with COVID-19 in the 25-34 age group had a mortality rate 7.3 times that of non-Hispanic white people." Hispanic-to-white mortality ratios are only slightly less pronounced.

Why the surging COVID count among those in the emerging adulthood range? Three partially overlapping theories seem to be getting the most attention.
  • Relative to their older counterparts, on average, adolescents and young adults are thought to see themselves as more immune to certain dangers, earning them the nickname "Young Invincibles." Research has indeed shown greater sense of invulnerability to correlate with some risky behaviors.
  • The brain's prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is associated with reason, planning, and blocking impulsive acts, does not appear to mature fully until well into one's twenties. Hence, lack of a fully developed PFC among many in the emerging-adulthood age-range -- combined with a brain-based attunement to rewards such as opportunities to socialize -- may leave them susceptible to risky behaviors. Interestingly, one study that briefly disrupted people's PFC found an increase in gambling.
  • Related to the previous two ideas, teens and young adults like to socialize, pure and simple. In Minnesota, four bars have been identified as COVID "hot spots" for young adults. One of these bars is in the Dinkytown district by the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, another is not too far away in downtown Minneapolis, and two are in Mankato, home to a Minnesota State University campus. College-area bars have also been linked to COVID in other states, as well.

How do young adults, themselves, view the situation?

The Huffington Post recently teamed up with the polling organization YouGov to survey U.S. adults of all ages on their behaviors and attitudes regarding COVID. A key item (shown in the following graph) concerns respondents' self-reported mask-wearing in public, near other people. Indeed, fewer respondents under 30 years old (40%) reported "always" wearing a mask than was the case in any of the other age groups.

If one goes to the HuffPost article at the above link, one can plot the data by any combination of variables one wishes to see (atop the graph, the little "v" in the right-hand part of the green area can be used to select survey items, whereas the "By" button on the little blue square can be used to select the grouping variable, such as age). 

One of the attitude items asked respondents if they believed wearing a mask was more a matter of public health or of personal choice. Interestingly, in each of the four age groups (under 30, 30-44, 45-64, and 65+), far more people cited public health (roughly 60%) than personal choice (roughly 30%). Young adults, therefore, are seemingly on the same page attitudinally with their older peers, but they simply don't follow through in wearing masks.

As this latest COVID surge unfolds, stronger government orders to wear masks are coming out -- even in previously resistant states such as Texas -- so we'll see if this does anything to change the behavior of young adults.


*Although some of the increase in case numbers may stem from increased testing, that is clearly not the only reason. As this article points out, "more people in lower-risk populations are likely being tested now than when tests were being strictly rationed to severe cases," which should lead to lower test-positivity rates. Yet, in many regions of the U.S., positivity rates are up. Also, the rising hospitalizations seen in many locations presumably originate from people who feel really sick with COVID-type symptoms going -- or being taken by family or friends -- to their doctor or an ER, which has little or nothing to do with testing campaigns in the community.

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