A top health official on the White House’s coronavirus task force warned Wednesday that younger people could suffer severe health risks from Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Most public health messaging so far has stressed that people who are older, whose immune systems are weakened, and who have underlying diseases are at higher risk of becoming critical cases. But during a briefing, Deborah Birx, the official, cited preliminary data from Europe to caution the public that younger adults can get very sick as well.
“There are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill, and very seriously ill in the ICUs,” said Birx, a physician and ambassador.
Birx did not provide details about the data and seemed to be talking about millennials, who make up the bulk of people in their 20s and 30s. She added that authorities have not seen “significant mortality” among children.
Indeed, so far there have been zero fatal infections in children under 10 reported, and one death reported in a teen, a 14-year-old boy in China, according to a study published this week. Children are known to get infected by the virus, but overall experience much milder symptoms than older adults. It’s not clear what role they have in spreading it.
The study this week, which appeared in the journal Pediatrics and looked at more than 2,100 pediatric infections in China, reported that 90% of children had asymptomatic, mild, or moderate infections. Only 5.9% had severe or critical cases, compared to up to 20% in adults.
Birx suggested one possible explanation for the cases reported in Europe among millennials is that perhaps the elderly and others at risk for serious infections took more protective steps to avoid an infection, whereas millennials did not. The data reflect who gets exposed, not necessarily that the virus targets one demographic group over another.
Even if only a fraction of younger people get severe infections, if many of them contract the virus overall, that can lead to a notable number of severe cases, Birx said.
“There may be a disproportional number of infections among that group, and so even if it’s a rare occurrence, it may be seen more frequently in that group and be evident now,” she said.
Birx this week has been stressing that millennials need to heed recommendations to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and to take other steps to protect themselves and others from the virus. Health authorities have argued that younger people who think they won’t be affected by the virus are in turn hurting efforts to stop the spread and putting others at risk.
“You have the potential then to spread it to someone who does have a condition that none of us knew about and cause them to have a disastrous outcome,” Birx said Wednesday.
At a World Health Organization briefing Wednesday, health officials also stressed that cases of severe illness were not restricted to older people.
“The idea that this is a disease that causes death in older people, we need to be very, very careful with,” said Mike Ryan, the head of the WHO’s emergency program, who noted that almost 20% of deaths in South Korea were in people younger than 60. “Physicians again in Italy will attest to this, and in Korea. This isn’t just a disease of the elderly. There is no question that younger, healthier people experience an overall less serious disease. But a significant number of otherwise healthy adults can develop a more severe form of the disease.”
Available data from other countries do not break down the severity of surviving cases based on age, but demonstrate the danger posed to older groups.
In South Korea, with more than 8,400 cases, only one person in their 30s and one person in their 40s has died. No one younger than that has died. And in Italy, no one younger than their 30s has died.
According to data from Italy, of the first 22,500 Covid-19 infections there, only 1.2% of cases occurred in children 18 and under, and about a quarter were reported in people 19 to 50 years old. (It’s possible that mild cases were missed because people did not seek medical care or were not tested. That can skew the data, particularly if younger people were more likely to have mild cases.)
Helen Branswell contributed reporting.