More young people are contracting COVID-19, but why?

When COVID-19 first started spreading in the U.S., there was a big push for people to be as safe as possible to help protect their older, more vulnerable loved ones. But, while older adults are still more likely to develop serious complications from COVID-19, new data show that coronavirus cases are skewing younger across the South.

In Florida, a state that has been particularly hit hard with COVID-19 cases, Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a Saturday press conference that the “vast majority” of new cases are among young people. “We’re seeing it spread in 20- and 30-year-olds faster than we would like to see, so we really want to send a message of doubling down on what we’ve been preaching since the start ... in terms of social distancing,” DeSantis said, per the Orlando Sentinel

In Mississippi, a spike in new COVID-19 cases has been linked to fraternity rush parties that are in direct violation of Gov. Tate Reeves’ executive order. More than 160 students at the University of Mississippi tested positive for COVID-19 since June 1, according to the Oxford Eagle. Eighty-one percent of the new coronavirus cases in Oxford, Miss., where the University of Mississippi is located, are in people between the ages of 18 and 24, NBC News reported.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said during a press conference last week that younger people are disproportionately being diagnosed with COVID-19. “There are certain counties where a majority of the people who are tested positive in that county are under the age of 30," Abbott said, per The Texas Tribune.

The data seems a little confusing, but public health experts say they aren’t shocked. Here’s what could behind the surge in cases among young people. 

Why are more young people being diagnosed with COVID-19?

There are likely a few things at play here. A big one is that younger people don’t seem as nervous about the virus as their older counterparts, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “As social distancing regulations are relaxed, the people who are most likely to return to normal activities are going to be young people who have less risk factors for severe disease,” he says. In general, “young people have not been as attentive to wearing masks and social distancing,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “We have seen younger people be more careless about this than being careful,” he adds.

In Texas, Gov. Abbott particularly called out Memorial Day festivities and gatherings as likely sparking the surge of cases, along with young people visiting bars.

But it’s not just about younger people being less worried about the virus. “We now have much better testing capabilities,” Adalja says. “Early on, we weren’t testing mild cases. Now, we’re more likely to offer testing and to have all symptomatic cases diagnosed.”

Contact tracing – the practice of contacting people who have been in close contact with an infected person – may also be working in these areas, leading to an increase in testing and new diagnoses, Adalja says.

"Some people who need to be tested before they go back to work are now getting tested," he says. "As part of that, younger people who have mild symptoms or no symptoms may get diagnosed without realizing they were infected."

Why is this so significant?

While many of these cases in younger people are minor or even asymptomatic, those people can still go on to infect more vulnerable people in their lives. “Young adults likely are as vulnerable to infection with SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – yet are much less prone to develop symptoms or severe complications of COVD-19 compared to older adults,” Glenn Fennelly, an infectious disease expert and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Rutgers University New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “Many may have minimal or no symptoms and are likely to feel less ill overall than are older adults. Because of this, younger people with SARS-CoV-2 infection are less likely to stay at home, and are more likely to interact physically with groups of friends compared to older adults.”

There’s often more opportunity for younger people to spread the infection, Fennelly says. “If they are in a crowd while they are in the phase of illness when they are on the cusp of developing symptoms – which often coincides with peak levels of viral shedding – they become, in effect, a super spreader of COVID-19, and may infect a large number of others with whom they have contact.”

Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, a medical epidemiologist with COVID Exit Strategy and former Epidemic Intelligence Service officer with the Emergency Response and Recovery Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is concerned that groups of younger people who may have gotten infected while not social distancing may also be less cautious around vulnerable family members. 

“Some people who need to be tested before they go back to work are now getting tested,” he says. “As part of that, younger people who have mild symptoms or no symptoms may get diagnosed without realizing they were infected.”

Schaffner agrees, calling the latest data on infections in young people “ominous.”

“Younger people are not only spread it amongst themselves but can bring it home to older family members and relatives,” he says. “Those people are more likely to have chronic underlying health conditions and develop severe cases of COVID.” 

Adalja agrees. “It’s usually considered better that young people are getting infected but the virus won’t necessarily always stay in that demographic,” he says. And, if those younger people infect their older counterparts, it can lead to more hospitalizations – the data may not show it yet. “It can take some time for this to spill into hospitals,” Adalja says. That’s concerning, given that intensive care unit availability is already low in Alabama, Florida, and Texas, per data from the COVID-19 tracking website COVID Exit Strategy.

“This underscores the need for contact tracing to be in place,” Adalja says. “Having people be rapidly diagnosed and isolated can help prevent these chains of transmission from occurring.”

The data may even lead to tighter restrictions on everyday life for everyone else, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “This increases the chance that a second shut-down will be necessary,” he says.

The challenge for public health officials, Shahpar says, is to “engage this demographic to reinforce the things we already know we need to do to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

What can people do to stay safe?

Even though regulations have loosened in many states, Schaffner says this is a good reminder that people should still continue to follow proven methods to lower their risk of contracting COVID-19, including practicing social distancing, wearing a mask when social distancing isn’t possible, avoiding large groups whenever possible, and washing hands regularly.

Fennelly doubles down on the mask recommendation. “In order to stay safe, we must all understand one simple message: You wear a mask to protect me against COVID-19. If we all wear masks, we will beat this,” he says. “However, over a dozen U.S. states still do not require masking in public, and there is no federal requirement to do so despite burgeoning COVID-19 hospitalization rates.” 

Overall, experts stress the importance of understanding that COVID-19 is a threat to everyone, regardless of their age or the weather. “There was a hope among many of us that COVID might not be transmitted as readily in the summer. This, apparently, is not the case,” he says. “COVID-19 doesn't care what you look like, where you live, or how old you are,” Watkins says. “It wants to infect you.”

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. 

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