The current surge of coronavirus infections has shifted, strikingly, to younger adults. In Florida, the median age of those infected has dropped from 65 to 35. People between 20 and 44 make up almost half of new covid-19 cases in Arizona. In parts of Texas, the majority of new infections are in people under the age of 30.
This is not surprising — it’s the young who are taking most advantage of loosening stay-at-home rules. They’ve got quarantine fatigue. They know they’re not likely to get terribly sick if they get the virus; many may never even know they have it (which of course makes them more dangerous, because they unknowingly infect others).
They are also getting some blame for a situation that’s not their fault. The United States is in this mess largely because of a failure of political leadership. We should have contained covid-19 much more aggressively from the beginning. Public officials have sent mixed messages, politicizing something as basic as wearing masks. The president himself hosted an indoor rally that is sure to lead to new infections.
Yet nothing changes the fact that America needs the help of young people to contain covid-19. And it’s in their best interests to go along.
So I’m talking to young people here: You’ve upended your lives for the past 3½ months of pandemic. You and your loved ones have made enormous sacrifices. Now, we need your help to ensure these sacrifices were not made in vain.
Please enjoy life — just do it safely. Let’s talk about seeing friends: Whenever possible, do it outdoors. Numerous outbreaks have been linked to what some health officials dub the “serious seven”: bars, gyms, weddings, funerals, faith-based activities, house gatherings, and other small events. There’s a case in Florida of 16 friends who went to a bar; within days, all 16 tested positive. One study, not yet peer-reviewed, suggests indoor gatherings may carry a transmission risk nearly 19 times greater than those outdoors.
So take advantage of the summer. Safer gatherings will be tougher in a few months, when cold, rainy weather will drive people indoors. But what we fail to do now will make it even harder for all of us later.
You’ve been invited to a bar? If it’s crowded and people aren’t wearing masks, suggest to your friends that you all go somewhere else, perhaps a park or someone’s backyard. Similarly, if you want to get out of town with friends, try a camping or hiking trip instead of a resort holiday.
Need to work out? Go running. Take an outdoor fitness class. If you go to an indoor gym, go during off-hours, keep a six-foot distance, and wipe down the equipment before and after you use it.
Dating and sex are more difficult questions, but for many already used to the world of online dating, covid-19 means you need to take it one step further. Substitute a Zoom or FaceTime chat for that first meeting, then get together for a date where you go for a walk — six feet apart. As things progress, have a conversation about how each of you has been considering your coronavirus risk. As for sex, there are safer ways to do this that prevent covid-19 transmission (and protect against STIs, too).
And, of course, wear a mask. Be a public health role model — you know it’s the young who set trends, so set this one.
What if your friends don’t want to go along? Remind them that the more precautions we take now, the sooner we can resume the things we really want to do. Colleges are more likely to open, sporting events are more likely to resume, and we all have a better chance of getting back to normal if we can get the virus under control. And for those who are passionate about fighting racial injustice, point out that everything we do helps to reduce rampant disparities, as it is black Americans and people of color who are bearing the brunt of covid-19.
And let’s not forget that, though people over 65 are more threatened by the virus, young people also do get seriously ill. In Tulsa County, one-quarter of hospitalizations for covid-19 are among those 18 to 35. A 28-year-old woman in Chicago just received a double lung transplant in an attempt to save her life. Previously healthy people in their 30s have suffered strokes due to covid-19; some may never regain their ability to speak or to walk.
If young people are now the drivers of the pandemic in the United States, it is they who also hold the key to reducing infections and saving lives. As a physician, I care about you; I have faith in you; and I thank you. Please stay safe for yourself, for each other, and for all of us.