With vaccination totals increasing and coronavirus cases declining across the country, many Americans are feeling a newfound sense of hope, that perhaps, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel.
However, health and government officials across the country are continuing to warn that the virus is still spreading among unvaccinated populations, with a larger share of younger Americans becoming infected, and in some cases, hospitalized with severe cases of the virus.
MORE: Why mask mandates for kids continue even as case numbers go down
For the first time, patients between the ages of 18 and 64 now account for the largest cohort of the 37,000 total patients currently hospitalized with the virus. With more older Americans vaccinated, this marks the third week that the number of hospitalized individuals in the 65 and older age group has been smaller than both the 18-49, and the 50-64 age groups.
PHOTO: COVID-19 Associated Hospitalizations by Age
CDC, ABC NewsCDC, ABC News
COVID-19 Associated Hospitalizations by Age
“Hospitals are seeing more and more younger adults, those in their 30s and 40s, admitted with severe disease,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky reported during a press briefing earlier this month.
Experts say the exact reason behind this trend is unclear, but could include the rise of variants, relaxed attitudes towards distancing and other mitigation measures, a younger population that is not yet fully vaccinated and vaccine hesitancy. It could also be merely more younger people getting the disease.
Even though not all hospitalizations are the result of severe illness, state officials say the trend is worrying.
“There is a very sharp increase, it appears, in younger adults… these are largely people who think that their age is protecting them from getting very sick from COVID-19, that is not happening,” Cassie Sauer, CEO and president of the Washington State Hospital Association, said during a press conference on Monday.
Dr. Chris Baliga, an infectious disease physician from the Virginia Mason Franciscan Health in Washington state, reported earlier this week that he has seen more patients under the age of 40 than at any other time in the pandemic, while noting that these younger patients appear to be coming in sicker than before.
MORE: COVID-19 vaccines may not offer complete protection for people with compromised immune systems
“40% of our cases were under the age of 40, which is mind-boggling to me. We never saw that earlier in the pandemic,” Baliga said during a briefing on Monday.
This trend, according to experts, may be the result of a number of factors.
Dr. Katie Sharff, an infectious disease expert at Kaiser Permanente, told ABC News that one of the driving factors may be simply more young people are becoming infected, and with that, inevitably, there will be more severe cases.
While earlier in the pandemic, the disease was affecting predominantly older adults, currently, coronavirus infections among Americans 18-54 account for the highest proportion of new cases per 100,000 residents.
PHOTO: In this Jan. 3, 2023, file photo, registered nurse Yeni Sandoval wears personal protective equipment (PPE) while she cares for a COVID-19 patient in the Intensive Care Unit at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, Calif.
Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images, FILEApu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images, FILE
In this Jan. 3, 2023, file photo, registered nurse Yeni Sandoval wears personal protective equipme…
Sharff, too, said she has seen more patients in her Oregon hospital between the ages of 40 and 50 requiring hospitalization, with some patients as young as 30 ending up in the ICU, and a lower percentage have had to be placed on mechanical ventilation.
In Oregon, daily COVID-19 cases have doubled, and the number of patients hospitalized with the virus has surged by 106%.
“If you have that many more young people getting infected there will at least be a subset who develop severe disease,” Sharff explained. Although some patients have pre-existing medical conditions, like obesity, what has been “really striking with this surge” is that not all younger patients needing care have concerning medical conditions that put them at high risk.