S T. PETERSBURG, Fla. >> Coronavirus cases are increasing rapidly among young adults in several states where bars, shops, and restaurants have reopened, a disturbing generational shift that not only puts them in greater danger than many believe. It represents an even greater danger for older people who cross their path.
In Oxford, Mississippi, the fraternity’s summer parties sparked outbreaks. In Oklahoma City, church activities, gym classes, weddings, and funerals spread infections among people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. In Iowa’s university towns, waves followed the reopening of bars. A group of meeting places near Louisiana State University led at least 100 clients and employees to test positive. In East Lansing, Michigan, a brewpub-related outbreak spread to 25 people between the ages of 18 and 23.
There and in states like Florida, Texas and Arizona, young people have started dating again, many without masks, in what health experts consider irresponsible behavior.
“The virus has not changed. We have changed our behaviors, ”said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metric science at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Younger people are more likely to go out and take risks.”
In Florida, youth ages 15-34 now account for 31% of all cases, up from 25% in early June. Last week, more than 8,000 new cases were reported in that age group, compared to about 2,000 among people ages 55 to 64. And experts say the phenomenon cannot be explained simply as the result of more tests.
Elected officials like the Florida governor have argued against the imposition of restrictions, saying that many of the newly infected are young and otherwise healthy. But younger people also face the possibility of severe infection and death. Last week, two 17-year-olds in Florida died from the virus.
And the authorities fear that the oldest and most vulnerable people are the following.
“People ages 18 to 50 don’t live in a kind of bubble,” said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt. “They are children and grandchildren of vulnerable people. They can be by your side at a wedding. You may be serving a meal in a restaurant.
The virus has taken a terrible toll on the elderly in the United States. The US, leading the world in total deaths, more than 120,000, and confirmed infections, in more than 2.3 million. Eight out of 10 deaths in the United States have been in people over the age of 65. In contrast, confirmed coronavirus deaths among 18- to 34-year-olds are in the hundreds, although disease trackers clamor for more accurate data.
For months, older people were also more likely to be diagnosed with the virus. But figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that almost as soon as states began to reopen, the picture changed, and people ages 18-49 quickly became the age group most likely to be diagnosed with new cases.
And although each age group experienced an increase in cases during the first week of June, the numbers increased more rapidly among youth ages 18 to 49. For the week ending June 7, there were 43 new cases per 100,000 people in that age range, compared to 28 cases per 100,000 people over the age of 65.
With the shift toward younger people, some hospitals are seeing a smaller proportion of their COVID-19 patients who need intensive care treatment, such as breathing machines.
“They are sick enough to be hospitalized, but they are not so sick,” said Dr. Rob Phillips, chief medical officer at Houston Methodist Hospital. He said he still finds the trend disturbing because young people “definitely interact with their parents and grandparents,” who may be next.
In a Florida hospital system, nearly half of COVID-19 patients were on ventilators during April, compared to less than 3 percent now, said Dr. Sunil Desai, president of the Orlando Health hospital system.
Some of the young people who have fallen ill describe stretches of extreme pain and fatigue.
“My chest and body hurt. Almost like I was in a car accident, ”said Emily Ellington, 25, of the Austin, Texas suburbs, who tested positive about six weeks after the state began reopening.
In Florida, where many restaurants and bars reopened in early May, Kristen Kowall of Clearwater, 32, dined with her fiancé in early June. Like others in the restaurant, she did not wear a mask. She tested positive over the weekend.
“I feel really groggy and tired. It hurts to walk. Especially my ankles and knees, it looks like my bones are going to crumble, “he said. “I would definitely advise people not to go out. That is not worth it.”
The increase among young adults may not be due to reopening and may also reflect broader evidence that has reached younger, less ill people. However, since May, younger adults have had a higher proportion of positive results than their older counterparts.
At the end of March and April, that was not the case: the highest positive rates were registered in people older than 65 years. Over the past month, about 7 percent of tests done on people ages 18-49 across the country have tested positive. That’s about 2 percentage points higher than the older adult groups.
Amid the surge, some Florida cities and counties require people to wear masks before going into business. An Orlando bar popular with University of Central Florida students had its liquor license suspended after more than 40 people who came there after it reopened tested positive.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has warned other bars that they could lose their licenses if they don’t follow social distancing guidelines.
“If you go in, and it’s Dance Party USA, dancing to the rafters … there is no tolerance for that,” he said.