Children and teens a growing segment of new COVID-19 infections
Experts say they're gathering more, taking risks while not yet vaccinated
More than a quarter of all new COVID-19 cases diagnosed in Lake and DuPage counties so far this month are residents under age 20.
In suburban Cook, Kane, McHenry and Will counties, people under age 20 make up more than 20% of new cases.
That's according to a Daily Herald analysis of Illinois Department of Public Health COVID-19 infection data that shows children and teens are making up a larger portion of suburban new case counts than ever before.
The actual number of COVID-19 infections in suburban children and teens is declining each month, but it's not happening as rapidly as in other age groups. Statewide, COVID-19 cases in people under age 20 averaged 344 a day in March, down from 1,166 a day in December.
Health experts believe there are several reasons for a shift in who is being infected these days.
"Many adults are getting vaccinated, which is helping with the rates in adults," said Dr. Sana Ahmed, an epidemiologist at the Lake County Health Department. "We are seeing an increase in those under the age of 20 participating in extracurricular activities as well as social gatherings outside of schools. It is possible this, combined with engaging in risky behaviors and being in close proximity without following (safety guidelines), could contribute to the increase."
@DHJakeGriffin checked out the latest #COVID19 case figures in the suburbs and found youths (people under 20) are making up a greater portion of them.https://t.co/SS05k2jwir pic.twitter.com/zgsdF29MHA— Daily Herald (@dailyherald) March 20, 2021
Through Thursday, 27.4% of all of Lake County's new cases in March have been diagnosed in those under age 20. In December, just 17.5% of the new cases were in that age group.
IDPH figures show 25.2% of all new cases of COVID-19 in DuPage County this month are in that youngest age group. The percentage has steadily climbed each month from 16.4% in December.
"The DuPage County Health Department has been carefully monitoring the positivity rate in DuPage County, and we have noted a recent uptick in COVID-19 case activity in our (younger) population," said Karen Ayala, director of the agency. "We don't believe there is a single factor leading to this increase. The increase may be related to more elements in our communities opening and people not being as vigilant as they were before with watching their distance, wearing a mask and avoiding crowded areas."
In suburban Cook County, 21.3% of new cases this month have been in those under 20. The rate is 23.5% in Kane County and 21.6% in McHenry County. All three are seeing higher new case rates among children and teens in March than in the three previous months.
Will County's rate is at 20%. While that's slightly lower than February's rate of 20.5%, it's still five percentage points higher than the December rate for that age group.
However, 4.9% of all the COVID-19 tests given to youths in Will County over the past week have resulted in a new case being diagnosed. No other age group in the county has a case positivity rate above 3%.
Cases among older residents have dropped as vaccination has picked up. While the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for people age 16 and up and Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are approved for age 18 and up, vaccine eligibility in the suburbs has not been extended to most teens.
Statewide, the seven-day case positivity rate for those under age 20 was at 3.2% as of Thursday. No other age group in the IDPH data is above 3%. In October, those under 20 in Illinois enjoyed a better case positivity rate than any other age group except for those between the ages of 20 and 29 and anyone 80 or older.
"Cases in Lake County are plateauing," Ahmed said. "Kids, however, are becoming more active and there are more opportunities to socialize."
Case positivity shows the percentage of new cases diagnosed among a batch of test results. A seven-day average is used to account for any anomalies in the daily reporting of cases and tests.
While the effects of COVID-19 typically have not been severe in younger people, health experts worry that asymptomatic youngsters can still unknowingly spread the virus to others who might be more vulnerable.
"There is always concern, but we are doing our diligence working to get adults who are most vulnerable vaccinated," Ahmed said. "We have been successful at vaccinating those in high-risk groups, such as those who work live or work in long-term care facilities and our 65 and older population."