Amid easing mask guidance for vaccinated Americans, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it’s all the more reason for younger adults to get inoculated given that the demographic accounts for about one-third of COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Some hospitals say they’re even seeing an uptick in COVID-19 patients between 18 and 49 years old.
"We're now seeing people in their 30s, 40s and 50s — young people who are really sick," Chair of the Chicago Medical Society's COVID-19 Task Force Dr. Vishnu Chundi told National Public Radio earlier this month.
Johns Hopkins University is also seeing an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations on its campuses among 18 to 49-year-olds.
"During the winter surge, for example, 15 to 20% of our patients were in the 40s and younger, but in May, it’s actually been 30% of our patients who are hospitalized have been under age 40," Dr. Rebecca Dezube of Johns Hopkins told FOX Television Stations Monday.
Between March 6 and April 10, the CDC said COVID-19 hospitalizations for adults between 18 and 49 years old went from 579 cases to 1,143 cases.
"Cases and emergency room visits are up," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in April. "We are seeing these increases in younger adults, most of whom have not yet been vaccinated."
Since then, the overall number of young adult hospitalizations has declined but health officials are still concerned. According to the latest CDC chart, 573 COVID-19 hospital patients are between 18 and 49 years old; 516 patients are between 50 and 64 years old; and 453 patients are 65 years old and older.
Dezube said the fact the younger adults outnumber senior citizens in hospitals reflects the vaccination trend. According to the CDC, 72.8% of Americans 65 years and older have been fully vaccinated, but only 47.4% of Americans 18 years and older have been vaccinated.
Dezube expressed concerns that states are easing restrictions too soon despite the fact that many young adults remain unvaccinated.
The head of the CDC on Sunday defended the decision to ease mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, stressing that political pressure had nothing to do with the abrupt shift in guidelines.
Under the new guidelines released last week, fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — can quit wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings and give up social distancing.
Partially vaccinated or unvaccinated people should continue wearing masks, the agency said. The guidance also still calls for masks in crowded indoor settings including buses, airplanes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.
National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the country, released a statement condemning the CDC — citing a high number of COVID cases in the U.S., concern about variants, and unanswered questions about vaccines.
Many states and businesses dropped their mask mandates after the updated CDC guidance was released, which concerns Dezube, especially without a system of knowing who has received the vaccine and who hasn’t. Some major retail stores, like Target and Walmart, said they will no longer require fully vaccinated customers to wear masks while shopping.
"I’m the parent of a 1, 3 and 5-year-old," she said. "And my current worry with the sort of relaxation of mask requirements in a lot of places is that we’re going to sort of see a segregated population. We’re going to see a decline in cases among the vaccinated population, and we’re actually going to see an increase in cases amongst the unvaccinated population."
Dezube said the key is that more young adults need to get vaccinated, even if they believe they have a smaller chance of getting seriously ill from COVID-19.
Health officials hope expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines could bring the infection rate down even lower since a CDC panel recently endorsed the use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in kids as young as 12.
Pfizer’s vaccine has been used for months in people 16 and older, but before rolling it out to younger kids, much of the nation was awaiting recommendations from the CDC’s advisers. The panel concluded the same dose adults use is safe and strongly protective in those 12 to 15 years old, too.
Children are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill from COVID-19, but they do sometimes die, and thousands have been hospitalized. By last month, those ages 12 to 17 were making up slightly more of the nation’s new coronavirus infections than adults over 65, a group that’s now largely vaccinated.
Pfizer is not the only company seeking to lower the age limit for its vaccine. Moderna recently said preliminary results from its study in 12- to 17-year-olds showed strong protection and no serious side effects, data the FDA will need to scrutinize.
According to the CDC, more than 121 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, representing 36.7% of the total U.S. population.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky previously said the agency is working to educate people about the science, data and safety of vaccines in order to combat vaccine hesitancy.
"We believe and know that the science moved quickly. We’ve enrolled 100,000 people in these trials and the science stood on the shoulders of years and years of work before to be able to deliver these vaccines," Walensky told reporters in April during a virtual news conference.
"If people are worried about the side effects, we can convey the data of over 200 million vaccine doses and the safety and the scrutiny of that safety," she continued. "So we need to meet people where they are and understand why they might be hesitant and then give them the information that combats that hesitancy."
President Joe Biden has set a new goal of delivering at least one dose of vaccine to 70% of adult Americans by Independence Day and fully vaccinating at least 160 million by then.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. This story was reported from Los Angeles.