In a striking telebriefing on Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that one reason the US is struggling to contain the pandemic is because Americans, particularly young ones, just aren't as healthy as people in other nations.
Prior to this, the institute had often pointed to people over 65 and those with pre-existing conditions as the most at-risk for catching COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
But speaking on Thursday, as the public health institute expanded its list of who was at risk for COVID-19, officials addressed the uptick younger Americans testing positive for the disease. They warned that people under 50 years old are not immune, especially if they have conditions like diabetes, obesity, or asthma, as many young Americans do.
In America, because of the prevalence of obesity and other medical conditions, many younger people do have pre-existing conditions. In fact, in many places younger people are driving the surge in cases.
"I think we have to recognize the reality," said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, "our nation isn't as healthy as some other nations, particularly as you look at the issue of obesity, or some of these chronic medical conditions."
"It highlights the fact that younger people in no way are completely immune to the effects of SARS-CoV-2, nor are they at zero risk of more severe manifestations," said Dr. Jay Butler, CDC Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases. "And among young people, that risk is elevated in those with underlying illnesses or health conditions, including things like diabetes or obesity."
Infection rates are rising in young people
In states like Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Texas, coronavirus cases are increasing for people under 40. In Arizona, people between 20 and 44 account for nearly half of all cases.
Researchers still don't know if this is because younger people, who are more likely to be socializing, are not socially distancing in the reopened bars or beaches, or because more of them are getting tested for the first time.
"Our best estimate right now is that for every case that was reported, there actually were 10 other infections," Redfield said during a call with reporters.
Even if younger people are less likely to go the hospital, they could infect others
Redfield noted that, as per CDC data showing hospitalizations are far lower in people under 50, younger people "may not be highly associated with hospitalization and death" but that "they do act as a transmission connector for individuals that could in fact be at a higher risk."
Young people could get the virus and not realize, and then unknowingly pass the disease on to other, more vulnerable people.
Experts at the CDC consider young people to be at risk at least in part because Americans are so unhealthy as a nation. This puts Americans, even younger ones, at higher risk levels for complications or hospitalization.
"So we really think this is a pivotal moment to emphasize those precautions that people can take as they're living their lives in the face of COVID," CDC incident manager Dr. Dana Meaney Delman said at the conference.
Those precautions include social distancing, wearing masks, and scrupulous hand washing.