Young people drive COVID-19 infections

·3 min read

Sep. 30—BOSTON — While young people are spared the worst health effects of COVID-19, they're still among the majority of those getting sick as the state tries to boost vaccinations amid a highly contagious strain of the virus.

Data from the state Department of Public Health shows people ages 20 to 29 represent a majority of new COVID-19 infections — or 4,179 new cases in the past two weeks.

The second-largest group is people ages 30 to 39, who reported 3,442 new infections.

Like much of the country, Massachusetts is seeing a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases driven by the highly transmissible delta variant.

Medical experts say lower vaccination rates among younger people, combined with a heightened risk of infection, is driving the surge.

Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School for Public Health, said the Massachusetts data reflects national trends, especially among children not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

"It dispels the myth that kids can't become infected and suffer severe illness," he said. "We're seeing that play out not just nationally but here in Massachusetts."

Koh, a former state health commissioner and assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said a perception that young adults have little to fear from COVID-19 has led to a false sense of security among those eligible for vaccines.

"That makes it more challenging to talk to them about vaccinations," he said.

Koh said health officials are anxious for a decision by federal regulators who are considering whether to allow use of vaccines in children under 12.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is weighing Pfizer and BioNTech's request to administer vaccine to children 5 to 11 after the the companies announced favorable results from clinical trials with more than 2,200 participants. The FDA must review the data from the trials before making a decision.

Of new COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts in the past two weeks, at least 1,189 involved children 4 and younger.

Another 1,761 children ages 5 to 9 years old have gotten sick, along with 1,829 children ages 10 to 14.

People 65 and older represented the fewest new COVID-19 cases, according to state health data.

National health officials also report a steep rise in the number of young people contracting the virus, including some who've ended up in the hospital.

Hospitalization rates among people ages 11 and younger are the highest they've been since the pandemic began last year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says more than 5.7 million children have contracted COVID-19.

Health experts note the number is likely higher because children are often asymptomatic, or their cases are so mild they're not even tested.

Meanwhile, only about 42% of children ages 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated in the United States, compared with 66% of adults, according to federal data.

The rise in infections comes as public schools and colleges resume in-person learning this fall.

Massachusetts has set a masking requirement for public schools, which was recently extended until Nov. 1. After that, schools will have to show at least 80% of staff and students are vaccinated before lifting the restrictions.

Meanwhile, many private and state colleges and universities have tightened their vaccination requirements for students returning to campus.

Dr. Carole Allen, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said vaccinating younger populations is complicated by rampant misinformation on the Internet.

"A lot of young people seem to think that the reaction to the vaccine is worse than the disease, which is not true," she said. "They're on social media a lot and who knows where they're getting their information."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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