For much of the pandemic, the U.S. healthcare industry has been mainly focused on the most vulnerable members of our society, including older patients and those suffering from chronic conditions. While these individuals are more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 than younger patients, they are not the only ones susceptible to the disease.
As time goes on, we are starting to learn more about how young people are responding to the virus and how they are affecting the rest of the community. As it turns out, many young people may be spreading the disease without their knowledge. The average age of those diagnosed with COVID-19 is going down, while older individuals stay home to protect their health.
Less Cautious and Less Likely to Get Tested
Testing has been limited across the U.S., which means providers have mainly focused on testing some of the country’s sickest and oldest patients. Many facilities have had a policy in place that reserves tests for those with serious flu-like symptoms and those most likely to die from the virus. This means older patients have been much more likely to get tested, and many younger people still don’t know if they have the virus.
Virus testing has since expanded to include younger patients, and health officials are starting to notice some disturbing trends.
Currently, around 60% of infections in the U.S. are occurring in those under the age of 50. Let’s remember that younger people are just as likely to get infected as older individuals, but they are more likely to be asymptomatic or show only mild symptoms.
Furthermore, the positive test rate for older individuals has trended down in recent weeks, while the positive test rate for young people has stayed the same.
This tells us that younger people are still getting infected at the same rate as they were a couple months ago. Younger people are more likely to want to get together with their friends, go out drinking, or hang out at the local pool, which can increase the spread of infection.
Let’s look at Florida as an example. The state currently has one of the highest infection rates in the country, but the median age of all new cases has gone from 65 to 35 over the last couple months as providers start testing younger individuals. The state has also seen a 300% increase in new cases over the last two weeks alone.
The same is happening in Washington state. Earlier in the pandemic, the state was focused on containing the virus in nursing homes, with most cases over the age of 60. Today, two out of every three new cases are in those under the age of 29.
Are Young People Driving the Pandemic?
If a person in their 20s or 30s doesn’t have any symptoms, they may feel free to carry on with their life as they please, especially now that many states have reopened gyms, bars and restaurants.
However, many younger people may be infecting others without their knowledge. A recent study in Japan found that younger people were more likely to spread the disease via what are known as “cluster outbreaks,” which are incidents or events that lead to the infection of five or more people, such as a party or a meeting. About 50% of all cluster outbreaks that were traced in the country were initiated by those in their 20s and 30s, and many were asymptomatic at the time.
According to the CDC, 81% of all new virus transmissions, resulting in outbreak clusters, happened in the days leading up to, or on the day of symptom onset. This shows us that it’s important to stay home and err on the side of caution even if the person feels completely healthy. They may be free of symptoms, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t contagious.
How Can We Reverse These Trends?
As a provider, you’re probably doing everything you can to keep your community safe, but keep these tips in mind when talking to younger folks about the virus:
- Encourage testing, if possible, for younger patients, even if they are asymptomatic. If your facility is reserving tests for older or sicker patients, remember that a person in their 20s or 30s can easily spread the disease onto more vulnerable patients, so give them a test if you can.
- Increase awareness and knowledge of the disease in places where young people like to hang out, such as bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and even local parks.
- Talk to local business owners about these safety policies. If there’s a bar in your town that’s popular with young people, make sure they are taking precautions. This may sound like more of a public policy issue, but the state or local government may not be enforcing safety measures. Minimizing infection at local hotspots could help save dozens of lives.
- If some young people seem resistant to change their ways, try changing the nature of the conversation. Instead of focusing on their health, remind them that they could infect their loved ones or more vulnerable members of society.
- Collaborate with local schools and universities to make sure they are sharing the latest information with students. You can also help them prepare for the fall if they are thinking of holding in-person classes.
- Encourage everyone to wear masks when going out in public, wash their hands often, and to continue practicing social distancing, even if some of your patients feel like the pandemic is behind them.
- Most healthy patients seem to recover from the virus in two weeks. Tell your patients to self-isolate for two weeks if they test positive or may be positive. They may need help finding a private place to stay until they can recover from the disease, such as a hotel room, college dorm, or temporary housing of some kind.
It may seem like young people are fueling the pandemic, but these safety practices could be a major game-changer in the weeks and months to come if we all work together. Do your part to help young people limit their spread of the virus. Use these tips to keep infection rates as low as possible.