Although new infections are gradually declining nationwide, some regions have contended with a resurgence of the coronavirus in recent months — what some have called a “fourth wave” — propelled by the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, which is estimated to be somewhere between 40% and 70% more contagious. About 32% of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated, but the vast majority are people older than 65 — a group that was prioritized in the initial phase of the vaccine rollout. As many states ditch pandemic precautions, this more virulent strain still has ample room to spread among the younger population, which remains broadly susceptible to the disease.
“We’re now seeing people in their 30s, 40s and 50s — young people who are really sick,” said Dr. Vishnu Chundi, a specialist in infectious diseases and chair of the Chicago Medical Society’s covid-19 task force. “Most of them make it, but some do not. … I just lost a 32-year-old with two children, so it’s heartbreaking.” It’s both a sign of the country’s success in protecting the elderly through vaccination and an urgent reminder that younger generations will pay a heavy price if the outbreak is allowed to simmer in communities across the country.
Nationally, adults under 50 now account for the most hospitalized covid patients in the country — about 36% of all hospital admissions. Those ages 50 to 64 account for the second-highest number of hospitalizations, or about 31%. Meanwhile, hospitalizations among adults 65 and older have fallen significantly.
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Fortunately, the chance of dying of covid remains very small for people under 50, but this age group can become seriously ill or experience long-term symptoms after the initial infection. People with underlying conditions such as obesity and heart disease are also more likely to become seriously ill. “B.1.1.7 doesn’t discriminate by age, and when it comes to young people, our messaging on this is still too soft,” Malmgren said. Rising infections among young adults create a “reservoir of disease” that eventually “spills over into the rest of society” — one that has yet to reach herd immunity — and portends a broader surge in cases, she said.
“We are in a whole different ballgame,” said Judith Malmgren, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington. The emergence of more dangerous strains of the virus in the U.S. — including variants first discovered in South Africa and Brazil — has made the vaccination effort all the more urgent.
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