- Mar 26, 2010
- Heading for greener pastures
Elderly residents continue to bear the brunt of coronavirus infection in Mass., data show - The Boston Globe
The overwhelming majority of the state's 503 deaths related to the coronavirus have been of people aged 70 or older.
Elderly residents continue to be disproportionately affected by the new coronavirus in Massachusetts, reflecting what epidemiologists have seen in other countries.
In the last two weeks, the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts have concentrated increasingly in people aged 60 or older, according to a Globe analysis of demographic data recently released by the state. At the same time, the proportion of known infections in people under age 30 has dropped.
The overwhelming majority of the 503 deaths related to the coronavirus have been of people aged 70 or older, many with underlying health conditions. One percent of fatalities in Massachusetts have been residents under age 50.
“We’re seeing the real demographic distribution of this disease,” said Dr. Sandro Galea, dean at the Boston University School of Public Health. “If you look at Italy, this is exactly what they had. But in Italy the overwhelmingly higher death rate is really driven by the fact that they had a lot more people over age 80.”
In Massachusetts, almost half of the people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are under age 50. That figure is actually disproportionately low for a state in which 62 percent of the population is under 50, according to US Census figures.
The fact that a large number of young people have tested positive does not surprise epidemiologists, who anticipate that the virus will spread equally over most age groups. But COVID-19 is particularly hard on older people with underlying health issues and waning immune systems.
“It’s really more about who has the complications leading to hospitalization and death,” said Dr. Shira I. Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts University School of Medicine. “You expect your hospitalization data and your death data to track with age, but you don’t necessarily expect your positive test data to reflect a difference over age groups.”
Even at this point in the outbreak, it remains unclear how widely the virus has spread in Massachusetts. Although the state has significantly ramped up testing in recent weeks, there still has not been enough to provide a complete picture, Doron said.
The state infection data will likely skew towards patients who have had more severe symptoms. Epidemiologists know that some people who have been infected have mild symptoms — or no symptoms at all — and will not be tested for the virus, leaving them out of the state’s tally. The only way to assess the full extent of the spread would be with mass testing of of asymptomatic individuals or blood tests to determine who has developed antibodies for the virus, Doron said.
The Globe’s analysis found that the proportion of confirmed cases in people under 30 fell in the last two weeks from 20 percent to 15 percent. Epidemiologists suggested there could be several reasons for that drop.
First, it could be the impact of social distancing efforts that have kept people at home. It could also be that younger people have more resilient immune systems and are less likely to exhibit severe enough symptoms to merit testing.
At the same time, the proportion of people with confirmed infections over age 60 has steadily increased, up over the past two weeks from 26 percent to 34 percent. Older people may be more likely to be tested because they tend to develop more serious symptoms.
“The reality is that this disease is overwhelmingly a disease that affects people who are older" and have underlying conditions, said Galea, the dean from BU. “Everybody gets this infection, right? But it’s who it impacts and that’s what we really see in the death data.”