UCSF study finds young adult smokers at high risk of severe coronavirus

Roughly one in three young adults nationwide are at risk of contracting a severe case of coronavirus, according to a...

Roughly one in three young adults nationwide are at risk of contracting a severe case of coronavirus, according to a University of California San Francisco study released Monday.

Researchers at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals found that 33 percent of men and 30 percent of women aged 18 to 25 are medically vulnerable to a severe illness caused by COVID-19.

But risk assessment differed drastically based on whether a person smokes. Smokers were found to be 100 percent vulnerable to a severe case of coronavirus, versus a 16.1 percent risk in non-smokers.

“Recent evidence indicates that smoking is associated with a higher likelihood of COVID-19 progression, including increased illness severity, ICU admission or death,” said Dr. Sally Adams, of the UCSF Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine. “Smoking may have significant effects in young adults, who typically have low rates for most chronic diseases.”

Roughly 22 percent of young adults had smoked a cigarette, cigar or e-cigarette in the past 30 days, the study found. By contrast, 8 percent had asthma, 3 percent diabetes, and 2 percent had immune disorders.

Though women had slightly higher rates of vulnerability factors like asthma, far fewer were smokers. As a result, women were at a somewhat lower risk of a severe COVID-19 illness overall.

“The risk of being medically vulnerable to severe disease is halved when smokers are removed from the sample,” said senior author Dr. Charles Irwin Jr., director of the UCSF young adult division. “Efforts to reduce smoking and e-cigarette use among young adults would likely lower their vulnerability to severe disease.”

The sample of 8,400 young adults came from the National Health Interview Survey. Demographics of those studied break down to 55 percent white, 13.3 percent Black, 22.1 percent Hispanic, and 5.5 percent Asian. Eight-two percent of participants were insured for a full year while 9.7 percent were insured for part of the year and 8.2 percent uninsured the entire year.

UCSF researchers also note data from the Centers for Disease Control that shows a slightly narrowing gap of hospitalizations between young adults and seniors since the early days of the coronavirus response.

On April 18, there were 8.7 hospitalizations per 100,000 people ages 18 to 29 and 128.3 hospitalizations per 100,000 people over 65 years old. On June 27, the respective rates had risen to 34.7 and 306.7. That meant a 299 percent jump in hospitalizations for ages 18 to 29, compared to a 139 percent increase in patients over 65 years old.

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health on Monday, comes the same day San Francisco health officials projected a surge in hospitalizations that could overwhelm the local health care system should current rates of infection hold.

Adults ages 18 to 29 make up 23 percent of San Francisco cases, but dashboards do not break down demographics of hospitalizations. There are 86 people with confirmed coronavirus cases in the hospital as of Monday, the highest since April 29.

Severe cases of coronavirus can take six weeks or more to recovery and cause long term damage to the lungs, kidneys, heart, and brain.

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