BOSTON — While older adults are more likely to die from the new coronavirus, public health officials are warning that no age group is totally risk-free.
A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows while fatalities related to the virus in the United States have been highest in people over 85, catching COVID-19 can result in hospitalization for a range of ages.
Of all patients admitted to intensive care, 36% were ages 45 to 64, and 12% were 20 to 44.
In Massachusetts, data from the state Department of Public Health shows that a majority of COVID-19 cases reported so far have been in people under 60.
The data runs counter to some of the early messaging about COVID-19, which was based in part on preliminary data from infections in China, where the new virus originated.
Health officials say they are worried that the perception young people have little to fear is leading to a false sense of security.
"The COVID-19 infection can occur in anyone, including young people," said Dr. Maryanne Bombaugh, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. "They may not die from it, but they could get very sick."
Health officials bristle at online videos of young people hosting "corona parties" and internet memes of them defying guidelines on social distancing.
"There seems to be this ethos that the virus is no big deal for young people," said Dr. Mark Pasternack, chief of the pediatric infectious disease unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"But it is a big deal, because some young people are getting very sick and because they are also very serious vectors of disease spread," he said.
The World Health Organization has warned that young people ignoring medical advice to practice social distancing are putting everyone else at risk.
"I have a message for young people: You are not invincible, this virus could put you in hospital for weeks or even kill you," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during an online news briefing last week.
"Even if you don’t get sick, the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else," he said.
Health officials say people of all age groups should stay at least 6 feet apart, which at the moment is among the few ways to prevent getting infected.
"Everyone, young or old, should do the right thing by practicing social distancing and treating everyone as though they might have been infected," Bombaugh said. "You'll be protecting yourself and doing a service for your community by preventing the transmission of this viral illness."
Of the state's 4,257 confirmed cases as of Saturday, more than 72% were people under 60, according to the latest health department data.
Earlier last week, the state for the first time reported cases of people 19 years old and younger — 83 as of Saturday — who have the virus.
The state has reported about 350 hospitalizations so far, but hasn't released details about those who sought treatment.
To be sure, the state's 44 coronavirus-related deaths have involved people ranging in age from 50 to 90. They included two women, both in their 70s and from Essex and Worcester counties, and two men — one in his 60s from Suffolk County and the other in his 80s from Norfolk County. Many were hospitalized and had underlying health conditions.
Pasternack said children with underlying disorders that affect their immune systems, heart or lungs are at a higher risk for complications from the COVID-19 disease.
He said it's likely the state and country will see pediatric deaths from COVID-19, much the same as occurs with with seasonal influenza.
"Children with preexisting conditions have an increased risk of critical illness and fatal outcomes," he said. "Thankfully we haven't seen it yet, but it's a statistical certainty we will."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.