A new survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that while mask-wearing has increased overall in the United States since April, individuals 18 to 29 years old are still the least likely to stick with wearing a mask. Experts say this lack of adherence to a fundamental protective measure may be part of the reason young people are getting infected at higher rates and continuing to fuel the pandemic.
The research, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, analyzed more than 6,000 online and telephone surveys, covering a nationally representative sample of adults above the age of 18. In three different surveys — one in April, another in May and a third in June — respondents were asked which safety measures they were regularly engaging in, including wearing a face mask, sanitizing or washing their hands and maintaining six feet of distance from non-housemates.
Over the course of the three months, the percentage of those wearing masks overall increased from 78 percent to 88 percent, but 18- to 29-year-olds still had the lowest participation. In April, just 69 percent of those 18 to 29 reported wearing a mask. The number increased to 86 percent in June but still landed far below those over 60, 92 percent of whom reported wearing a mask in June.
Aside from the discrepancy between seniors and young adults, the increased use of masks over the three-month period is a positive sign. But other safety measures like hand-washing, social distancing and avoiding large crowds all decreased, especially among 18- to 29-year-olds.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, says the fact that seniors are better at protecting themselves isn’t necessarily surprising. “Young people are the most risk-tolerant,” Adalja tells Yahoo Life, referring to young people’s willingness to put themselves in danger. “They tend to be less likely to comply or follow public health guidance, and because of that you see these types of patterns in the way infections are right now.”
He says it’s not necessarily surprising to see that those over 60 are better at following the rules. “Seniors know that they are more likely to have severe infections, that they are more likely to take this virus seriously because that’s where the hospitalizations and the deaths are occurring,” says Adalja. “Younger individuals may feel less inclined to do so because they are at a lower risk for severe complications.”
But the risk, he notes, isn’t zero. A recent CDC study found that young people represented 20 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. between June and August, the highest of any age group. Another from JAMA in September explored infections among this age group and found that 21 percent required intensive care and nearly 3 percent died.
But on top of the risks to young people themselves, their failure to wear masks may put others around them at risk too. A recent analysis from Vanderbilt University found that hospitals serving those in regions without mask mandates are seeing the “highest rate of growth” of the virus.
The fact holds true when looking at national trends. Overall, 32 states have enacted full mask mandates for residents, with another 17 enacting partial mandates. South Dakota remains the only state not to issue any sort of mask mandate. Based on data from the New York Times, the same states in which COVID-19 is currently spiking are those with either partial or no mask mandates, including Missouri, South Dakota, North Dakota, Utah and Nebraska.
For this reason, Adalja says that prioritizing mask-wearing is vitally important — especially among young people. “We know that there are people out there who have mild symptoms or no symptoms, and the only way to stop them from transmitting the virus is to have them wear a face covering in addition to social distancing,” he says. “So I do think that the more we see people adopt this public health guidance, the more likely we are to see cases come under some better level of control.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
Read more from Yahoo Life
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.