CLOSE

Councilman Peter Yacobellis mourns Jason Tassy, 22, who died on March 25 from complications of COVID-19 after helping Montclair residents with recycling pickups. A COVID outbreak in early March reduced the ranks of public works employees. NorthJersey.com

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

The scenes in New Jersey's intensive care units were unmistakable last spring — a sea of senior citizens, many of them 75 and older, filling beds, ravaged by COVID-19 and gasping for air.

New Jersey hospitals never saw levels like that again. But this spring, as hospitalizations began to steadily increase during another wave, emergency departments filled with a new demographic: working-age adults.

"The overall COVID population in our hospitals is getting significantly younger," said Dr. Daniel Varga, chief physician executive of Hackensack Meridian, the state's largest hospital network. "It's very different from what we were seeing this time last year."

The percentage of COVID patients being admitted to hospitals who were under 60 years old jumped to 49% of all COVID admissions last week — a sizable increase from December, when that group represented about 35% of COVID admissions, according to the state Health Department.

Public health officials say the trend shows the efficacy of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, since the vast majority of New Jersey seniors have received at least one dose. 

On the flip side, it also shows two worrisome trends for health officials: the spread of more contagious COVID variants and younger unvaccinated people engaging in more risky behavior, such as gathering maskless in groups indoors.

"The older patients were doing what they needed to do, staying inside and wearing masks," said Dr. Michael Cascarina, who runs a family practice in Brick. "It's not followed nearly as strictly as you look at younger patients. Part of it is pandemic fatigue. Part of it is not liking being told what to do."

New Jersey officials hope vaccine hesitancy is not a major force behind the rise. 

Bergen vaccinations: Here's how many are fully vaccinated against COVID as of April 13

Therapeutics: Eligible patients can receive monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19

Details: J&J COVID vaccine official describes clot problem in woman from 'NJ-Pennsylvania area'

Vaccination eligibility opened Monday to every New Jerseyan age 16 and older regardless of an underlying condition or employment category. Health officials hope this will begin crushing the number of daily hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and ventilators in use, all key indicators that appear to have begun to plateau recently.

While more younger people are getting sick, they're not dying at as high a rate as seniors are.

They are still a lower-risk group that can better weather the virus and its respiratory attack. Unlike last spring, the virus can be detected much earlier thanks to widely available testing, which has increased the chances of surviving the disease.

The story continues below the gallery.

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

And hospitals are much better at treating COVID patients with a combination of medication and century-old treatments like placing patients on their stomachs to ease breathing.

The majority of patients being admitted to Hackensack Meridian Health's 14 hospitals with COVID these days are 18- to 50-year-olds. But 90% of COVID deaths at those hospitals are still seniors. 

"They're still the most vulnerable; there's just a lot less of them coming in with COVID," Varga said of seniors.

That's not to say younger people aren't dying from the virus. An unvaccinated man in his mid-50s who was in excellent health recently died seven days after becoming infected, said Cascarina, whose practice serves 10,000 patients. 

"He never made it to the hospital," Cascarina said. "He was the type of patient who you wouldn't expect to die from COVID, and yet he did."

Still, vaccines have been shown to be very effective against severe illness, especially among New Jersey's elderly. Since vaccinations began in late December at nursing homes, cases and deaths have plunged. 

Reader, covering our local communities takes time and resources. Help us better support your community by becoming a subscriber today.

Their effectiveness on seniors living independently took much longer after a low supply and bumpy rollout in January saw many older New Jerseyans struggle for two months to get appointments.

As of last week, 75% of those 80 and older had received at least one dose, and 80% of those between 65 and 75 years old had done the same, said Judy Persichilli, the state health commissioner.

"There's a strong correlation between the great progress we've made on vaccinating seniors on the one hand, who we know are the most vulnerable, and the flip side of that coin is a younger demographic getting sick in the hospital," Gov. Phil Murphy said last week.

New Jersey mirrors a national trend. 

The number of seniors hospitalized has plummeted by 80% since mid-January, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. And the rate of seniors being hospitalized dropped below that of 18- to 64-year-olds nationally around March 20, CDC data shows. 

"This reinforces the reality that individuals of all age groups are vulnerable to severe coronavirus disease," said Dr. Kenneth Rondello, an epidemiologist at Adelphi University. "As vaccine coverage in this age group improves, we will see fewer COVID-19 cases in young adults, including fewer cases severe enough to require hospitalization."

Scott Fallon covers the environment for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about how New Jersey’s environment affects your health and well-being,  please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @newsfallon 

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/coronavirus/2021/04/20/nj-covid-hospitalizations-young-people-climb-senior-illness-drops/7255682002/