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1 in 6 COVID cases in NY hit college-aged people this fall. Now, they're coming home

David Robinson
New York State Team

College-aged people accounted for about 16% of New York’s coronavirus positive tests in September and October after many campuses reopened, the biggest age-related chunk of COVID-19 cases at the time.

The newly reported statistic, covering COVID-19 infections among 18- to 22-year-old people, offered the first statewide glimpse of the virus’s spread on New York college campuses, some of which struggled to curb party fueled outbreaks.

Now, college students are fanning out to return home for the holidays and authorities are striving to prevent them from spreading the virus to older Americans more vulnerable to the respiratory disease.

“With the holidays approaching, we are fighting living-room spread from small gatherings in private homes and adding college students' interstate travel will be like pouring gasoline on a fire,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week.

Medical personnel prepare to administer a COVID-19 swab at a drive-through testing site in Lawrence, N.Y., Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. The rate of COVID-19 infections has risen enough in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut to require those states' residents to quarantine if they travel to New York, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo says New York won't enforce the rules against those residents.

The comments came as governors in Northeast states urged all colleges and universities to offer COVID-19 tests to students before they left campus for Thanksgiving break, a precaution previously required of the State University of New York’s 64 campuses.

What experts say about college students, COVID risk

An airport employee checks the temperature of passengers before they are allowed to board their flight at Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD) on Nov. 10, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The dire effort to safely clear college campuses underscored health officials' mounting concerns about COVID-19 deaths hitting record highs in the U.S., surpassing 250,000 deaths overall last week, by far the most in the world.

Meanwhile, after limiting the virus’s spread this summer, New York’s COVID-19 cases have risen recently and hospitalizations topped 2,300 on Friday, the highest level since early June but far below the spring peak of nearly 19,000.

New York’s daily death toll also surpassed 30 recently, which is up from the summer but well below the 800 people killed each day during the peak.

Experts anticipate the virus will keep spreading among older New Yorkers in coming weeks and cost lives, despite improved medical treatments for COVID-19, robust testing and travel restrictions.

More: COVID is threatening NY hospitals. Will elective surgeries stop again? What to know

More: As COVID-19 surges, NY health care leaders concerned about repeat of PPE shortages

But convincing people to forgo holiday gatherings and follow COVID-19 precautions, such as mask wearing, will still be integral to limiting the severity of the suffering as the nation awaits delivery of an eventual vaccine, said Dr. Robert Amler, dean of New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice

“People have done so well by and large so far, and it would really be a shame if large numbers of us kind of got tired and weren’t doing these things when we’re so close to being able to turn the corner on this once we can get vaccinated,” he said.

Experts, including scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also expressed concerns about the ability of COVID testing to limit risks associated with college students returning home for the holidays, as well as plans for resuming the spring semester.

“Properly timed tests can be very useful in the right circumstances. But to test large numbers of people on a certain day and then watch them all leave for large parts of the country and have them come back and test them again, I’m afraid we just can’t time it right,” Amler said.

Why elderly, communities of color remain at higher-risk of COVID-19 deaths

A security guard at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale takes the temperature of someone entering the facility April 8, 2020. The New York state Department of Health believes employees were the No. 1 source for the explosion of coronavirus cases in nursing homes.

Amid the effort, coronavirus cases have also surged to an all-time high at nursing homes across the country despite government efforts to shield residents through aggressive testing and visitor restrictions, a recent report shows.

Federal data shows 10,279 COVID-19 cases in nursing homes during the week of Nov. 1, the most recent data available. The figures surpassed the previous high of 9,903 cases in late July, according to a report by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living.

While COVID-19 ravaged New York nursing homes this spring, the number of cases among frail and elderly residents most susceptible to the illness declined during the summer, only to begin ticking up again this fall.

“The trend continues that age is very strongly correlated with death from COVID-19,” said Jill Montag, a state Department of Health spokeswoman, adding underlying health conditions that often track along with age are also a major factor.

More: New York, New Jersey limiting private gatherings to 10 people. How will it be enforced?

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“When cases decrease among the elderly, deaths tend to decline, and unfortunately cases among the elderly are on the rise again,” she added.

About 90% of New York’s more than 26,200 confirmed COVID-19 deaths had at least one underlying condition, such as cancer, lung disease and diabetes, with the percentage remaining relatively stable during the pandemic.

The virus’s disproportionate impact on Black communities has also persisted throughout the crisis, with Black people accounting for 17% of COVID-19 deaths and just 9% of the population, excluding New York City.

The COVID-19 fatality disparity for Hispanic people, who account for 13% of the population outside New York City, has improved slightly, dropping to 13% of deaths from 14% early in the year, state data show.

Experts attribute the COVID-19 death disparities to systemic racism and historic inequity in American medicine and society.

Overall, more than 85% of New York’s COVID-19 deaths were people age 60 and above, although the virus has caused serious illnesses in all ages, according to state data and experts.

“The virus is going to continue to infect people every chance it gets,” Amler said, adding the health risks remain dire despite breakthroughs in the use of drugs and oxygen to treat patients.

“Unfortunately, we’re still stuck having to block exposure every chance we get, and that’s the reason for all these guidelines,” he said.

What we don’t know about COVID and age

A lab at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University conducts COVID-19 pooled surveillance testing for all SUNY schools and a variety of other colleges across the state. Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020.

It is difficult to gauge the exact rise in COVID-19 infections among the elderly and college-aged people because New York state officials have declined to release age-related data on infections statewide.

The state Department of Health, for example, only released the percentage of infections among 18- to 22-year-olds earlier this fall in response to USA TODAY Network New York questions about the matter.

The agency noted it publicly releases a range of other data, but it did not provide a reason for withholding the age-related infection numbers, which experts say are important for public understanding of risk factors and policy decisions.

By contrast, New York City health officials release detailed age-related data on COVID tests and positive results. Some county health departments also release age-related data on infections.

More: Through the looking glass: Once you’ve battled COVID-19, these survivors say, the face in the mirror changes forever

More: 6 New York families face a balancing act of living and (remote) learning

Further, the SUNY college system has released data on COVID-19 positive tests among students and employees on its campuses.

So far this fall, there have been about 5,000 cases, and SUNY officials have touted the low test-positivity rate, at less than 1%, as a sign of its ability to limit the spread of the virus at state colleges.

State health officials also noted some fluctuations in the percentage of positive COVID cases by age are expected in part due to testing bias, such as spikes in the number of schoolchildren, college students and nursing home residents being tested at various points of the pandemic.

USA TODAY contributed to this report.

David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud

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