As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations begin to trend younger, health leaders urge everyone eligible to get vaccinated

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Jolene Bechtel administers a COVID-19 vaccine at the Douglas County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

With large portions of Douglas County residents over 65 vaccinated but middling interest in vaccines from some younger folks, local health leaders are keeping a watchful eye on trends that indicate COVID-19 is beginning to find younger targets.

At the peak of the pandemic, those over 65 led local 14-day test positivity rates, or the percentage of tests that came back positive over the past two weeks, and the average age of those hospitalized with the virus in Lawrence also tended to be older. But those trends are beginning to move in the opposite direction, and health leaders are reminding the community that there is still more work to be done when it comes to fighting the virus.

In a recent discussion of the county’s current health order, which does away with gathering limits but keeps mask and social-distancing requirements in place, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Director Dan Partridge said younger people were the least likely to be vaccinated, and that affects the spread of the virus.

“If you’re a teen and young adult, that’s the group that spreads COVID the greatest, and they are the least vaccinated,” Partridge told the Douglas County Commission. “So it’s not just the overall numbers; we’ve got to look at who has been vaccinated, so we’ve got a long ways to go.”

Deputy Public Health Officer Jen Schrimsher added that as variants of the virus spread in other states, particularly the B117 variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, younger and younger people are getting sick and being hospitalized, including people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

B117 is one of five variants that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants. However, the CDC states that, so far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with the currently authorized vaccines recognize these variants.

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Informatics Director Sonia Jordan told the Journal-World that getting larger percentages of the population vaccinated, including younger residents, is key in keeping virus and variant levels low in Douglas County.

“The way to get back to quote-unquote normal is to win that race between the vaccines and the variants, and right now we’re seeing lower vaccine compliance or interest in the younger populations, and we’re starting to see an increase in cases and hospitalizations skewing younger demographically,” Jordan said. “With the variant, the last thing you want to do is give it space to live.”


Jordan said the reasons for the shifting trends in hospitalization age and positivity rates likely include variants of the virus, vaccination rates and behavior.

The average age of people hospitalized at LMH Health, which serves people from within and outside the community, has indeed been dropping. Jordan said that in the past the average age of people hospitalized at LMH with COVID-19 has been in the 60s or 70s, but that last week the average age was 45. Jordan said there have been some reports that the B117 variant causes more complications among younger populations, which she said is a theory for why the community is starting to see a decrease in the age of people being hospitalized. She said while Douglas County isn’t currently seeing high reports of B117, that’s not the case with neighboring Shawnee County, and it’s important to remember there is movement between Lawrence and surrounding communities.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health

Health department data shows test positivity rate per age group throughout the pandemic.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health

Health department data shows test positivity rate per age group throughout the pandemic.

At the same time, though people over 65 are seeing 14-day test positivity rates for the virus at or near zero, positivity rates for the younger age groups are leveling off or in some cases beginning to trend slightly upward, according to graphs that the health department provided to the Journal-World.

That’s a change from previous trends. At the peak of the virus in mid-November, those over 65 had some of the highest 14-day test positivity rates compared with other age groups, with a rate of 10% for those between 65 and 74, about 14% for those 75 to 84 and about 16% for those 85 and up, according to the graphs. Currently, all three of the 65-plus age groups have positivity rates of zero or nearly zero, and the younger age groups now have the highest positivity rates by comparison. Currently, the positivity rate is 4.4% for those 18 to 24, 3.7% for those 55 to 64, and 3.3% for those 25 to 34 and those 35 to 44. The overall positivity rate for Douglas County is 2.7%.

Jordan said the county’s health officers were very attuned to what was happening with the virus and the variants in and outside the community and were keeping a close eye on the positivity rates and other trends.

“Where we are right now is very closely monitoring and trying to keep a lid on an increased spread or increased outbreaks,” Jordan said.

Douglas County reported 197 active cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, an increase of 21 cases since Wednesday. Over the course of the pandemic, 9,152 people have tested positive for the virus and 87 people have died. The county has averaged about nine new cases per day over the last 14 days, according to a 14-day moving average graph updated weekdays by the health department. The current average of 8.5 new cases per day is up from a low of just under seven new cases per day in mid-March and down from a recent high of 71 cases per day in early January.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health

Health department data shows the 14-day test positivity rate per age group at the virus’s peak in mid-November.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health

Health department data shows the current 14-day test positivity rate per age group.


An issue that health leaders are contending with is that interest in getting the vaccine appears to be decreasing even though anyone over the age of 16 is now eligible.

As the Journal-World has reported, Health Officer Thomas Marcellino said Douglas County, like many other parts of the country, has seen demand for first doses drop significantly in the past couple of weeks. Though Douglas County has the highest vaccination rate in the state overall, it has distributed fewer than 1,000 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the past week, the smallest distribution the county has had since it began reporting vaccine distribution information to the Journal-World on Feb. 12.

While vaccination rates are extremely high for those 65 and older, the percentage of residents who have had at least one dose decreases steadily with age, according to county statistics. The number of people vaccinated in the 65-plus categories actually appears to exceed the most recent U.S. Census estimates for those age groups, indicating vaccination rates could be near 100%. Meanwhile, it’s estimated based on census figures that the vaccination rate is only 60% for those 35 to 44, 45% for those 25 to 34, 23% for those 18 to 24, and 36% for those 16 to 17. Jordan said it’s possible that the rate for those 18 to 24 could be a slight undercount if students provided their parents’ address instead of their local address.

photo by: Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health

Health department data shows current vaccination rates by age group, as compared to the most recent U.S. Census.

Regarding why the interest in vaccines seems to drop off with age, Jordan said it could be that younger people feel less urgency in getting vaccinated because they are less concerned with getting seriously ill with the virus, or they think that because they have already had it they can’t get it again. She said that while younger populations have shown more resilience to the virus, variants could present more risk to younger people and that it is not known how long immunity from prior infections lasts.

Even without the risk to their personal health, Jordan said the city’s younger residents were part of the wider community and what is needed is a high vaccination rate communitywide. When it comes to discouraging the B117 variant from becoming the dominant strain, Jordan said it was important for the younger age groups to get vaccinated because if there are large populations that are unvaccinated and hanging out together, the variant could start to spread among that group.

Especially for those who are unvaccinated, she said it was also important to avoid high-risk behaviors. Jordan said while people in the older age groups who are vaccinated have started to return to more normal social habits, that doesn’t give everyone the green light. She emphasized the importance of continuing to follow health precautions such as wearing masks, practicing social distancing and avoiding crowded or poorly ventilated indoor spaces.

Jordan said she understood that a lot of people were tired of some of the precautions and were ready to get back to “normal.” But she said letting up now would only extend the wait.

“I definitely understand the fatigue people are feeling right now, but we are really at a point where it is critical for people to continue (precautions) to hopefully make the journey shorter in the long run,” Jordan said. “We do not want to continue to extend and extend this journey just because we are getting tired of the preventative measures.”


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