Coronavirus Does Not Spare the Young

Young adults are unwitting vectors — and victims — of Covid-19

OOur 18-year-old son was on spring break from Northern Arizona University (NAU) last week, staying home with us just as we began some serious social distancing. Now he desperately wants to go back to the dorm. He’s loving his first year of college and, in particular, dorm life.

Wait, what? The dorm is open?

At a time when restaurants and bars are closed, large gatherings are canceled, and people are told to stay 6 feet apart in places where clear heads prevail, NAU has instituted online education so students can stay remote, but the university has also made clear the campus is open, the dorms are there for the living, and food service will continue.

That’s made us, as parents, the bad guys, advising our son not to reenter what seems like an obvious cesspool of potential infection, as students are lured back from all over the state and beyond. That suspicion is confirmed by Caroline Buckee, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Based on early anecdotal evidence and ill-advised statements, we’ve fooled the under-60 set, and particularly teens and young adults, into dangerous complacency.

“Absolutely, dorm environments are places where we expect Covid-19 to transmit efficiently because people are in close proximity, and unless they can be confined to their rooms, they’re sharing bathrooms, they’re sharing kitchens,” Buckee tells Elemental.

No big deal?

Many young adults have been led to believe — by health officials, politicians, and early media coverage of the outbreak — that this whole coronavirus thing is no big deal for the young. Based on early anecdotal evidence and ill-advised statements, we’ve fooled the under-60 set, and particularly teens and young adults, into dangerous complacency.

The risk extends beyond college campuses, as spring breakers gather en masse at far-flung, popular party destinations, where older adults live and work and could be infected or infectious, then head back to campus or to their parents’ house. For every diagnosed Covid-19 case, five to 10 other people are thought to be carrying it around, silently infecting others, according to a March 16 study in the journal Science.

“There are many young people who are not taking any kind of social-distancing precautions, and they are now going home,” Buckee says. “That is a very big risk.”

Brady Sluder, a high-school grad from Ohio, apologized this week after his spring break comment on the coronavirus, “I’m not going to let it stop me from partying,” went viral. Meanwhile, at least five University of Tampa students recently tested positive for Covid-19 after the break.

Teens on ventilators

Severe cases of Covid-19 attack the lungs and make breathing difficult. Children and young adults are less likely to suffer the most severe consequence or to die from Covid-19 than older people are. But in recent weeks, it’s become clear that young people shouldn’t count on the disease’s purported age boundaries.

“There is this belief in some young adults that people their age don’t really get sick from SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes Covid-19, or that if they get infected they will at most have mild symptoms,” says Dr. Mahalia Desruisseaux, an associate professor of internal medicine at Yale University School of Medicine and member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“While the risk is still very low, we now know that there are younger people who become critically ill with Covid-19. Data coming out of New York and California and other parts of the country, for instance, show that young adults and teenagers have had to be placed on ventilators.”

An 18-year-old recently died of the disease in the U.K., where others in their twenties and thirties have described their experiences with it as “dangerous” and “you feel like you’ve been in a car crash” and “I felt like I was drowning.”

An early CDC analysis of 2,449 diagnosed U.S. cases in which the patients’ ages were known found:

  • 20% of people hospitalized for COVID-19 were age 20 to 44.
  • 12% of those admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) were age 20 to 44.
  • Nine deaths were reported in the under-65 age group (with no detailed breakdown offered).

These preliminary data “demonstrate that severe illness leading to hospitalization, including ICU admission and death, can occur in adults of any age with Covid-19,” the researchers concluded.

Importantly, because younger people are more likely to carry the disease without significant symptoms, or even with none, they can unwittingly spread the deadly disease to others, including especially vulnerable older adults.

“You may not feel as though you are benefitting personally from staying home, but staying home might mean keeping your loved ones alive,” Desruisseaux says. “For individuals who are at risk of being critically ill, if hospitals are taxed beyond their capacities due to huge influxes occurring simultaneously, as is already happening in parts of the country, it is a matter of life and death.”

These preliminary data “demonstrate that severe illness leading to hospitalization, including ICU admission and death, can occur in adults of any age with Covid-19.”

Just look around

States and cities with relatively few cases (like Arizona, with 401 cases and six deaths as of March 25) should avoid complacency, Buckee says. They need only look to New York, Italy, or any other Covid-19 hot spot to envision what’s coming. “Transmission happening now is going to end up with hospitalizations in two to three weeks.”

Universities should “really try hard to limit dense populations of people who could be spreading the virus,” Buckee advises. “After returning from spring break, a sensible policy might be to have everyone returning from spring break self-isolate for two weeks.”

“NAU remains open, including residence halls, because we recognize that for some of our students — this is their only option,” the university said in a statement provided to Elemental. “With that said, a majority of our residential students have not returned to campus from spring break.”

The university does not plan to offer any refunds on housing or meal plans for students who finish the semester from home.

The bottom line, health officials say: Where governments and institutions don’t take extreme social-distancing measures now, individuals should, for the protection of the young and the old and everyone in between. For us, that means being the bad guys (and asking our son to read this article).

“This is not to be taken lightly,” says Dr. Sean O’Leary, an infectious disease expert with the American Academy of Pediatrics. “This is like nothing anyone alive has ever seen, and we are all in this together.”

The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. For updates, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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