Why student COVID rates may keep protocols in place

A new report from Touro College in New York City and a previous study from the CDC shows a higher prevalence of rates among teens and young adults than older adults.
By: | March 11, 2021
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Today marks the one-year anniversary of the pronouncement of COVID-19 as a pandemic. After that day last March, much was shared and learned, especially from the Centers for Disease Control, about the effectiveness of masks and social distancing in preventing transmission of the virus.

Higher education institutions, understanding how valuable those safety measures were on their dynamic and often free-flowing campuses, enacted protocols that largely have kept positive rates low.

But in a quest to have campuses return to normal, will they relax those stances over the next several months? A new study might provide some guidance.

According to lead author Barbara Rumain, associate professor of psychology and researcher in the Touro College & University System that includes New York Medical College, adolescents are more susceptible to acquiring the SARS-CoV-2 virus than older adults. It is also likely that the age group has greatly contributed to the spread of COVID-19, according to the report, which was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday.

With that in mind, Rumain said, institutions should be cautious in their planning.

“This high prevalence in youth — it’s double what it is in adults 65 and older – needs to be taken into account when making decisions about schools and colleges re-opening,” Rumain said. “We also know from other studies that adolescents and youth can transmit the virus quite efficiently. So, based on these two facts of high transmissibility combined with high prevalence, we need to continue the protocols of mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing.”

Inside the study

Rumain and her team studied the rates of infection across six states during the summer of 2020 and found far greater instances of the virus occurring in those ages 10-24 than in those ages 65 and over nationally. They also said state-level numbers from Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, Utah, Kansas and South Dakota were much higher for the younger age group.

“We found that in Florida, the virus is twice as prevalent in 15-24-year-olds as it is in adults 65 years and older,” she said.

The study and Rumain’s guidance come as many colleges and universities have expressed a desire to fully reopen in the fall, hopeful that mass vaccinations will provide a stabilizing force to be able to conduct in-person classes, bring the majority of students back into residential housing and increase athletics and other activities. They also point to student desires to want to get back to a “normal” college experience.

Students, however, also have expressed a want to remain safe during the pandemic in several studies. For colleges and universities who are planning ahead, a full reopening may be tempered a bit by the continued inclusion of  those safety protocols, and the dependence on vaccinations.

“We know everybody’s tired of staying home, of isolating as much as possible, but we can’t let our guard down,” she said. “If we do, things can get worse instead of better.

Rumain and her team noted that despite the early remarks from the CDC that adolescents were less vulnerable to acquiring COVID-19, the agency shifted its stance in August.

In fact, during its mid-January Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC noted that “incidence among young adults (aged 18–24 years) was higher than that in other age groups throughout the summer and fall.” It saw a rise in cases in the age group during mid-July and in early September, as colleges and universities began to reopen, “that preceded increases among other age groups, suggesting that young adults might contribute more to community transmission than do younger children.”

Rumain and coauthors Moshe Schneiderman of SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Allan Geliebter of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai theorize that perhaps the social nature of students coupled with them being less susceptible to more harmful outcomes may be driving more lax behaviors.

“Teenagers may not fully appreciate the health consequences of not wearing a mask,” Rumain said in a statement to Touro College. “And even if they knew they might get infected, the desire to socialize may have been more compelling than fears of getting sick.”