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DETROIT – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke directly to young people on Monday as she announced an executive order requiring people to stay home to avoid spreading novel coronavirus.
"Young people, I'm talking to you now," Whitmer said. "You're not immune from this. You can get this virus. ... You can carry this without even knowing it and be unknowingly exposing others to it.
"There's been this misperception that if you're young, ... you're not susceptible to COVID-19. The fact of the matter is in America, we are seeing severe consequences in our younger people in ways that they haven't seen it in other parts of the world."
She speculated that vaping might be a contributing factor. Of the people in Michigan with confirmed cases of the virus, 41% are ages 20-49, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Despite a spate of vaping-related lung injuries nationally in 2019, the habit is popular among young people.
"I've talked to more than one physician who has observed, and perhaps there's too little science to know precisely if this is what's going on, but vaping is a lot more popular in the United States than it is elsewhere," Whitmer said. "And that ... compromises your respiratory system and makes you more susceptible to respiratory illness."
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Dr. Samuel Allen, a pulmonologist at Beaumont Health, told the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, that it's too soon to say what role vaping is playing in the global coronavirus pandemic, which, as of Tuesday morning, had infected nearly 400,000 people and killed at least 17,400, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Global Case Tracker.
"There's really no scientific evidence that links the two," he said. "First of all, it's because vaping itself is relatively still in its infancy. So is it plausible as a kind of an interesting observation? Yeah. But as far as a scientific link, there's none."
But, Allen said, a person who has lung injury from vaping probably would be more likely to be severely sickened by COVID-19 than someone without vaping-related lung injury, just as a cigarette smoker, someone with chronic lung disease, diabetes, immune suppression or heart disease would.
Dr. Meilan Han, a pulmonary specialist at Michigan Medicine and professor at the University of Michigan, said that while most of the research about the novel coronavirus suggests older people are more likely to be hospitalized and die of the disease, "we certainly do know that there are young people in the United States that clearly are experiencing severe disease and are on ventilators.
"And so people have been hypothesizing as to what some of the risk factors might be. We don't have a lot of published data from the U.S., so we're looking to the little bits of published data that are coming out of China.
"What they're seeing is that one of the risk factors ... does appear to be smoking."
One report suggests that smokers have a 14-times higher risk of severe illness with a COVID-19 infection than nonsmokers, she said.
"We don't have a lot of data on vaping right now, but there is reason to potentially hypothesize that things that cause lung inflammation like smoking, like vaping might increase the risk for more severe disease," she said.
Dr. Arnold Monto, professor of epidemiology and global public health at the University of Michigan, said any connection to vaping and the rate of young people with severe disease from COVID-19 is speculation.
"There's vaping," he said. "Young people have gotten sick. Maybe it's vaping, but we don't have a link. What we would want from an epidemiologic standpoint is to have the histories of those who became sick and see whether they vaped. But there's no data that I know of, so it's pure speculation."
Follow health reporter Kristen Jordan Shamus on Twitter @kristenshamus.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Vaping illness, coronavirus: What doctors say after Whitmer's comment