STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On this day when we may learn that mask requirements are loosening across the United States as more and more people are vaccinated, we should recall that COVID still is spread widely. About 40,000 people are in the hospital in this country for COVID, and it's hitting young and middle age adults the hardest. Will Stone reports.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: The pandemic is far from over inside Dr. Vishnu Chundi's hospital in Chicago. It's not as crowded as during the winter, but the patients are still quite ill, and they're younger.
VISHNU CHUNDI: Now, we're seeing people in their 30s, 40s, 50s. Most of them make it. Some do not. I just lost a 32-year-old, you know, with two children, and it's heartbreaking.
STONE: Chundi leads the COVID-19 task force at the Chicago Medical Society. He says it's a clear demographic shift among his patients, propelled in part by dangerous variants. The most prominent is the B.1.1.7, first identified in the U.K.
CHUNDI: I mean, we know it's about 60% more infective and also causes a lot more illness.
STONE: There's strong evidence that all three vaccines being used in the U.S. offer good protection against the U.K. variant. At hospitals run by the University of Colorado, Dr. Michelle Barron says the median age of COVID patients has dropped by more than a decade. It's now people in their late 40s.
MICHELLE BARRON: A lot of them are requiring ICU care, whereas before, a lot of them were more so just on the floor and still requiring hospitalization but not quite as sick.
STONE: Nationally, the share of 18- to 49-year-olds in the hospital for COVID has grown about 50% since early February. It's the opposite for people 65 and older. That's no surprise. Older adults got vaccines ahead of most younger people. Judith Malmgren, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, says younger people also account for the most new infections.
JUDITH MALMGREN: That reservoir of disease exists. When that fills up, gets bigger and fatter, it spills out into the rest of society.
STONE: A society that is not near herd immunity yet, where many people are still vulnerable. It was only April 19 when all adults in America became eligible for vaccines, although in some states, that happened sooner. But some recent national polls indicate more than a third of adults in their 20s and early 30s haven't made a plan to get the vaccine. Malmgren says the public health messaging to this age group around the new variants needs to be much stronger.
MALMGREN: We're in a whole different ballgame now, so you need to stop thinking, I'm not going to be bothered by this, or I'm not going to be affected, 'cause you are.
STONE: And in some recent hot spots like Michigan, more children are also catching the virus. Last month, Julie Cohn and her family, who live in New Jersey, lightened up on their COVID-19 precautions. Cohn let her 12-year-old son play in the semifinals of his basketball league, this time without a K95 mask.
JULIE COHN: My son and two other children on that basketball team contracted COVID at that game.
STONE: Five days later, her other son was infected, and soon, so was Cohn.
COHN: I was really sick - lot of digestive issues and just my whole body hurt, and the only thing that felt good was drinking water and laying in bed.
STONE: Cohn is not only 43 and healthy, but she was also more than 30 days out from her second COVID shot, which makes her a rare breakthrough case.
COHN: I think I learned the hard way, which is when infectious disease experts said to you they're not changing their lifestyle until they see the number of cases in their community drop, I would follow that.
STONE: Now, she and her son need specialized care for post-COVID symptoms at a time when, like so many Americans, they hoped to begin putting the pandemic behind them.
For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.
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