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Younger adults make up increasing number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in North Carolina, experts say

COVID-19 cases and positive test rates have stalled in their improvements, and now, patient counts have started to increase once more.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There are new rises in North Carolina's coronavirus-related hospitalizations right now, and the patients getting care look different than earlier in the pandemic.

"ED visits for COVID-like illness have dropped dramatically for those 65 and older, but it's actually increasing for those 25 to 44," Dr. Katie Passaretti, an infectious disease specialist with Atrium Health, said.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services data shows those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s have roughly doubled their share of total hospitalizations since the January surge.

Passaretti noted, within the Atrium Health system, the coronavirus patient census has been increasing over the past week, mirroring the trends seen in the statewide data on the NCDHHS dashboard.

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The trend starts as the state settles into its latest round of eased restrictions, which kicked in two weeks ago and approaches nearly 30% of adults being fully vaccinated. Prior to the recent rise, hospitalizations had been decreasing for 12 straight weeks.

Meantime, COVID-19 cases have stalled in their progress downward for about a month, and the positive test rate has taken a slight rise from its most recent low of just under 5% to roughly 5.4%.

The skew in cases and hospitalizations towards younger age groups is likely prompted by multiple factors, but Passaretti said, playing a role, are the prioritized vaccinations for older groups, along with the growing presence of the more contagious and deadlier B.1.1.7 variant in the Carolinas.

According to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, B.1.1.7, also called the U.K. variant, is now the most prevalent form of the virus in the U.S.

With genomic sequencing of the virus expanding, the CDC has begun estimating variant presence in some states, and the latest update, current through March 13, show at least 8% of North Carolina's cases are from the U.K. variant. However, based on the variant's trajectory, it is possible that the share is now higher.

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Including the U.K. variant, the CDC has listed five "variants of concern," known as such due to evidence of increased transmissibility, severity in disease or ability to evade detection or treatment. All five variants of concern have been detected in the Carolinas.

Doctors and health officials say the state is in a precarious position, ramping up vaccinations and easing restrictions. They hope people are quick to get vaccinated and slow to ease vigilance.

"We're starting to see a hint that we might be starting to see an uptick in our community," Passaretti said. "We've heard about it certainly in other areas of the country, other parts of the world. We may be heading down a similar path."

Have a relative or friend in another state and want to know when they can get vaccinated? Visit NBC News' Plan Your Vaccine site to find out about each state's vaccine rollout plan.