Higher Rate of COVID-19 in Teenagers Than Older Adults

New Study, Led by Touro Researcher Finds Young People Played a Role in Virus Transmission

March 10, 2021
teen girl with mask
Teenagers are spreading COVID-19.

Adolescents are more likely to get infected with the coronavirus than older adults, providing evidence that young people played a role in the transmission and spread of COVID-19, according to a new study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on March 10.

The study, led by Barbara Rumain, Ph.D. of Touro College and New York Medical College, a member of Touro College & University System, runs counter to earlier research from China and European countries that found low rates of COVID-19 in adolescents and youth. Those studies may have led teenagers and young adults to feel they were invulnerable to the disease.

The researchers examined rates of infection in six states this past summer, when COVID-19 cases spiked and then followed a plateau. The states were Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, Utah, Kansas and South Dakota.

In all six states, the prevalence of COVID-19 in teens and youth (ages 10 to 24) was greater than the prevalence in older adults (ages 60+). In addition, young people made up a disproportionately larger amount of people with COVID-19, compared to their proportion of the entire state population.  

For example, in Florida and Utah, 2.2% of the population of 15-24-year-olds were infected with COVID-19, whereas only 1.1% of the adults 65 and older were infected.

Despite reports early in the pandemic that children and young people were less susceptible to contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it became clear by the summer of 2020 that they could be affected. It wasn’t until August 2020, more than six months into the pandemic in the U.S., that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated, “children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

By September, the number of cases in adolescents 10 to 19 years of age had climbed to 387,000 in the U.S.

Rumain and her coauthors, Moshe Schneiderman, B.A., of SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Allan Geliebter, Ph.D., of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, believe a number of factors might be responsible for the higher rates in young people. They theorize that adolescents have more social contacts than older adults and that older adults, feeling vulnerable, were more likely to follow masking and social distancing.

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

Other studies, including a large South Korean study, have found a high rate of transmission among teenagers. Given the higher prevalence and potentially higher rates of transmission, the authors recommend more targeted public health messaging to address these factors.

“A meaningful campaign would acknowledge the challenges young people face of the pandemic, and offer tips for socializing on Zoom and suggestions on how to foster long-term relationships even when socializing virtually,” continued Rumain.

In addition, these results should be considered when making decisions about re-opening middle schools, high schools and colleges, and the importance of wearing masks and social distancing in school settings.