Teens and young adults have a higher chance of getting infected with the coronavirus than older adults, according to a new study that uses data from Utah and five other states, and contradicts past research and conventional wisdom.
“It was a surprise that the effect was so high, because at the time people were saying, ‘Oh, children are not susceptible; you hardly see it in kids,’” said Dr. Barbara Rumain, lead author on the study that was published Wednesday in the open-access medical journal PLOS ONE.
Rumain said she and her co-authors — Mosche Schneiderman at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and Allan Geliebter at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai — didn’t expect to see results showing children would catch the virus more frequently than older adults.
“We thought it would be probably around the same, maybe a little less, but not that much less,” Rumain told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday.
The study runs counter to studies released earlier, which found low rates of COVID-19 in adolescents and youth in China and Europe.
“I don’t think [the China and Europe studies] really looked at the prevalence the way we did,” Rumain said. Also, “we had a lot of cases to report from. That’s why we looked at surges. When there was a surge, when there was a good number of cases, then you could tell what was going on.”
Rumain is an associate professor in the department of psychology at Touro College, in New York City, and adjunct associate professor in the department of pediatrics at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y.
In the study, Rumain and her team looked at case counts in six states from summer 2020, when counts were surging across the country. They picked those states — Utah, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota and Tennessee — because they count their cases by age groups, allowing researchers to measure teens and preteens.
The study cites data from the Utah Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, which said 10,674 people between the ages of 15 and 24 had tested positive for the coronavirus by last summer — which is 2.2% of all Utahns in that age group. Among Utahns 65 and older, there were a total of 3,686 COVID-19 cases to that time, or 1.1% of all Utahns in that age range.
Compare those counts to the number of cases one would expect, if infection rates were uniform across all age groups. By that measure, the researchers calculated, Utah’s 15 to 24 group had 150% of the COVID-19 cases it would have had if infection rates were equal, and the 65-and-older group had 73% of the cases it would have had.
Teens and young adults, Rumain said, “should realize they’re not immune. It’s quite prevalent in those age groups. If they go around thinking, ‘I’m not going to get it, because teenagers usually don’t get it,’ that’s not true. … They should be aware that there are other ways to socialize, and they should take advantage of those other ways.”
Recent research by Utah doctors found that high school students were more than likely to be infected than elementary and middle school students. Health experts attribute that at least in part to more socializing in person by older teens.
Rumain acknowledges that her study’s findings won’t be welcome in states, like Utah, where political leaders are looking to ease mask mandates and other restrictions.
“Everybody’s tired of staying home, of isolating as much as possible,” Rumain said, “But you have to be alert. If not, it can get worse instead of better.”