They’re young, they’re restless, and across the United States they’re driving the latest wave of Covid-19 cases.
Fed up with pandemic restrictions and lulled into a false sense of security by the increasing rate of vaccinations, coronavirus wards at local hospitals are increasingly being populated by younger, still-unvaccinated adults who've let their guard down, the nation's top public health experts are warning.
"It is premature to declare a victory," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said Tuesday at the National Press Club. "We're seeing more and more young people get into serious trouble, namely severe disease, requiring hospitalization and occasionally even tragic deaths in quite young people."
Fauci's warning echoed earlier remarks by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are now entering our fourth week of increased trends in cases,” Walensky said Monday. “The trends and data have been indicating cases are increasing nationally as we are seeing this occur predominantly in younger adults.”
In particular, Walensky said, “many outbreaks in young people are related to youth sports and extracurricular activities” that involve their parents.
Part of the problem is that Americans have become less afraid of catching Covid-19, even though slightly less than a fifth of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated, the latest NBC News figures show.
In a recent Gallup Poll, just 35 percent of Americans responding to a survey done March 15-21 said they were worried about contracting the coronavirus — a 14 percentage point drop from February and well below the 59 percent record that was set in April 2020 in the early months of the pandemic.
While the biggest decline of 21 percent was among people over 65, the group most likely to be vaccinated, there were also big drops in the percentages of people worried about catching the virus in the 18-44 and 44-64 groups, the poll showed.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 outbreaks linked to younger people have shut down day care centers in Nebraska and Wisconsin and caused cases to quadruple in at least one Connecticut town. In states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Maryland, the number of younger people in hospital Covid-19 wards is on the rise.
“What we are seeing is patients in their 20s and 30s and 40s,” Marna Borgstrom, CEO of Yale New Haven Health, recently told NBC News in Connecticut.
In Chicago, the city's public health commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady, warned that younger adults are pushing the Covid-19 metrics to a level not seen since October.
"Even if there are more cases in young people, we still are seeing that translate into an increase in hospitalizations," Arwady said. "I am concerned, and I hope everybody is concerned when they look at this data."
But nowhere is the spread of Covid-19 among nongeriatrics more pronounced than in Michigan, which right now leads the nation in hospitalizations among younger, unvaccinated people, according to the latest CDC figures.
Why Michigan? It’s not just because the state is grappling with the spread of highly infectious Covid-19 variants that’s second only to Florida.
“The surge in cases Michigan is experiencing is a combination factors: variants, outbreaks among schools/sporting teams and a high case rate among 10-19 year olds and now increasing rates among all age groups through 59, and Covid-fatigue,” Michigan health department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin told local media on Monday.
In an interview last week with NBC News, Michigan public health expert Marianne Udow-Phillips said the surge in new Covid-19 cases “is directly related to the return of youth sports.”
“It’s not happening on the field,” said Udow-Phillips, who heads the Center for Health Research Transformation at the University of Michigan. “It’s happening in transit and afterward, when people are getting together and eating and not wearing masks. It’s happening at parties and where people are socializing.”
While Michigan public health experts have been urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to keep the mask mandate and other restrictions in place, an advocacy group for student athletes and their parents called “Let Them Play” has sued the director of the state Health and Human Services Department, Elizabeth Hertel, over a new pandemic order that requires rapid testing for Covid-19 for all youth athletes ages of 13 to 19.
“It seems like there are a lot of people in Michigan who just want to fight Whitmer and don’t want to follow the protocols,” Robert Bensley, a professor of public health at Western Michigan University, told The Detroit Free Press. “They think it isn’t real; it’s a hoax. They won’t get vaccinated and they could get Covid, and they might be transmitting a variant that could be deadly.”
Nearly 19.5 percent of Michigan residents have been fully vaccinated, according to Becker's Hospital Review.