New COVID-19 research shows high prevalence in young adults

With variants surging, colleges and universities can't overlook vaccinations or even masking for the fall.

As colleges and universities make decisions on pandemic protocols for the fall—if any—new research from Touro University in New York indicates that COVID-19 has actually been more prevalent among adolescents and young adults. While more severe outcomes have been experienced in older individuals, there are concerns that a lack of vaccines in young populations and the emergence of the highly transmissible BA.5 variant and soon-to-come BA.2.7.5 could have more far-reaching impacts, such as long COVID or serious illnesses.

The study done by Touro researchers and published recently on the Journal of American Medicine’s Open Network shows that younger persons were more susceptible to getting COVID-19 early on during the pandemic in 16 of the 19 states they analyzed, including Florida where it was nearly double for those ages 10-24.

“Contrary to reports from Europe and Asia, infection rates and relative risk among US adolescents and youth exceeded that in older adults from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic through fall 2020, before vaccines were available,” researchers said.

They especially called out the Sunshine State’s response under Gov. Ron DeSantis and its Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, who has denounced COVID vaccines in young people. It is also one of the many conservative states that have disallowed public universities from mandating vaccines.

“The Florida Department of Health recently issued guidance that Florida, contrary to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, was formally recommending against COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5 to 17 years,” Touro researchers noted in the report. “Recognition of the high adolescent infection rate and associated childhood mortality due to COVID-19 noted earlier—more than 1,000 lives lost in the U.S. in those under 18 years from the start of the pandemic through the beginning of March 2022—argues against Florida’s position and supports CDC recommendations.”

A return to protocols?

In the past month and because of the spread of BA.5, many colleges and universities have doubled down on their positions to continue vaccine mandates this coming academic year. This week, the University of California at Irvine even brought back masking because of heightened positivity rates in the community, joining both UC-Riverside and UCLA. Irvine also has recommended to its leaders that events be held outdoors where possible and that testing be done prior to those events.

Heading into the third fall under a pandemic cloud, institutions have much to consider, even as the country continues to open up this summer in a desperate attempt to return to normal. Data from The New York Times shows that COVID is not only lurking but is spreading like wildfire, with positivity rates topping 20% in 22 states. Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations have climbed 20% nationwide while deaths have jumped 9%. Most of the states with the highest positivity rates also have the fewest vaccine participants.

More from UB: How 9 universities plan to approach the pandemic this fall

From the early days of the pandemic when then President Donald Trump said case counts quickly would be reduced to zero, there have been 89.5 million cases of COVID in the U.S. and more than one million deaths. The Touro study is especially important for three reasons:

  • One, it shows how prevalent COVID can spread among younger populations, debunking another myth that they are protected from getting the virus.
  • Two, it proves vaccines are vital in protecting even the young from serious outcomes.
  • And three, it shows that testing can be invaluable. “Our own personal observations have been that testing centers are reluctant to test adolescents because they think adolescents will experience only mild symptoms if any,” researchers wrote. “Thus, the numbers of cases reported for adolescents on the state health department websites may be underreporting actual numbers of cases.”

Because of the way state and local public health outlets delineated ages of COVID positive cases, Touro researchers only considered data from 19 states when there were COVID surges: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. What they found were “significantly higher” numbers in adolescents in all but three. One of Touro’s key findings was that those higher rates in youth came at a time when vaccines were not available to anyone in the U.S.

“Possible reasons for our findings are that adolescents had more contacts than adults and that older adults, feeling vulnerable, were more likely to adhere to masking and/or social distancing guidelines than adolescents and youth,” researchers said. In the three states where adolescents and youth did not outpace adults, researchers offered an explanation—South Dakota held the massive Sturgis rally where the spread was high, and Michigan and Pennsylvania both had a large number of political rallies during that time.

For colleges and universities this fall, both the Touro researchers and the American College Health Association recommend they take proactive steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At a minimum, the ACHA says colleges should “strongly recommend” that students be up to date (including boosters) on their vaccines but that any college that can mandate them should consider it. “Campus-level vaccine requirements are effective in ensuring a highly immunized community, and immunizations have been shown to be effective in lowering the likelihood of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19,” the ACHA says in its new guidance. Both the ACHA and Touro researchers also note the possibility of long COVID and its effects on the physical and mental health of students.

Touro researchers took their findings a step further. “People, especially adolescents, need to wear masks and social distance,” said Barbara Rumain, associate professor at Touro University and co-author. “The pandemic is not over.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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