Younger adult Iowans testing positive for coronavirus at an increasing rate

Nick Coltrain
Des Moines Register

Iowans younger than 40 are disproportionately testing positive for the novel coronavirus — and the counties with the state’s two largest universities are topping the trend.

Statewide, Iowans ages 18 to 40 made up 47% of all positive coronavirus tests as of early July, according to data from the Iowa Department of Public Health. In early March, only about a quarter of the positive cases were among people 18 to 40 years old, an agency spokeswoman said.

In Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa, 70% of positive tests belong to that age group. In Story County, home of Iowa State University, more than 75% of positive tests are among 18- to 40-year-olds.

"As we continue to monitor COVID-19, we know that we'll continue to have spread and clusters of activity, and this is one of the populations we will be watching closely," public health agency spokeswoman Amy McCoy told the Des Moines Register. COVID-19 is the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

The virus is, generally, less likely to be fatal for younger people who contract it.

Of Iowa’s more than 700 deaths, only 2% are among people in the 18-40 range. People ages 61 or older account for 88% of Iowa’s COVID-19 deaths, despite making up about 16% of positive cases. 

But a spread among younger Iowans can lead to a spread among older Iowans and those whose health is already compromised.

Story County Public Health Director Les White said younger people generally like to socialize more, and with restrictions on businesses and activities lifting, more people are going out. As of July 2, Story County had 747 positive cases of coronavirus, putting it at No. 31 among Iowa's 99 counties with the highest number of cases per capita. The case count includes people who are considered recovered from the virus.

“We were doing very well in Story County,” White said in an interview. “... Sometimes, I think when that happens, you let your guard down a little bit. Possibly, we did that as a community or that age group in particular, let their guard down a little bit. Things were opening up, and they wanted to get out and visit with their friends."

Sam Jarvis, community health division manager at Johnson County Public Health, echoed the sentiment.

Allowing businesses to reopen “sends the message that coronavirus is not in our communities,” he said. Public health officials are making an effort to normalize wearing facial coverings and keeping 6-foot distancing between people, he said. And if people feel even the mildest of symptoms, he encouraged them to stay home.

"What we really want to impress on people is that while the illness might not be severe for you, it might be severe for others,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “... It's a societal responsibility to be mindful of others."

In early July, the Polk County Public Health Department also reported a “surge” of COVID-19 cases. In a news release, the department highlighted younger people as a driver of the trend. Polk County’s rate mirrors the state’s, with 48% of positive tests coming from people ages 18-40.

In the release, Polk County Public Health Director Helen Eddy warned that the July 4th weekend, and associated festivities, could lead to more spread. Eddy encouraged people who are sick or have tested positive to stay home, and for people who go out to wear face coverings and be mindful of social distancing.

Both the University of Iowa and Iowa State University have announced modified schedules and class structures to mitigate risks from the pandemic when the fall semester starts.

McCoy, with the state Department of Public Health, said the state is mindful of students gathering as well.

"We're also working with university and college administrators in reviewing guidance that will help prevent, detect and mitigate spread of COVID-19, especially as classes resume in areas where younger adults will be living and studying in more congregated settings," she said.

Jarvis, of Johnson County public health, said his agency wasn't raising any red flags about students returning to the University of Iowa, but is preparing for it.

White, of Story County, said her department is working with Iowa State University and believes “Iowa State has a very good plan in place” for when students return for the fall semester.

Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at or at 515-284-8361.

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