Coronavirus is surging again. Are young people to blame?

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Many states are seeing major surges in COVID-19 infection rates, and unlike at the start of the pandemic, experts are starting to shift their attention from at-risk elders to people in their 20s and 30s. The highest rate of infection is now among people under 50, and health experts fear that young people may be fueling the surge. Recent data shows that more than 60% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are under 50, and the median age of people who have been infected is now 35, according to CNN. Is this just a case of patronizing finger-wagging, or are the tides turning?

To be clear, older people are still most susceptible to severe illness and death, but it appears that young people are spreading the virus disproportionately. It’s not, however, because they’re maliciously irresponsible, as some judgmental people might assume. There are a lot of factors that play into the increasing infection rates in this demographic, biologist Erin Bromage explained, on CNN. One of the most salient reasons young people are spreading the virus is that they tend to be less symptomatic.

“They are just as easily infected as the elderly, but much more likely to show no or mild symptoms,” Bromage said. That means that they can easily spread the virus without knowing they had it in the first place. It wouldn’t be as big a deal if young healthy people were only giving it to other low-risk people, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case. “People in these age groups are the ones who have allowed the virus to smolder through our communities and erupt into flames when they make contact with a susceptible population,” Bromage said on CNN.

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“Their high mobility and complex social and employment networks provide the perfect opportunity for the virus to continue to smolder through our communities,” Bromage said. So, then, part of the problem is that young people are just more likely to be out and about right now, either because they are hanging out in bars and restaurants or because they are working in them, CNN reported. As states reopen and people go back to work, a lot of the people returning to work are on the younger side. The combination of folks being asymptomatic carriers and returning “back to normal” modes of work and play — when we all know things are not back to normal — creates the ideal breeding ground for infection.

We need to start paying more attention to the role that people under 50 have in transmitting COVID-19. Not just because they could be carriers, but also because young people can also get sick from the disease. “To think young people have no deleterious consequences is not true. We’re seeing more and more complications in young people,” Anthony Fauci said on Tuesday during a House Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing.

Younger people may not have the highest mortality rates from COVID-19, but that’s partially because mortality rates generally increase as you age. The thing is, even if COVID-19 doesn’t kill you, it still sucks. Young people need to know that besides the risk of infecting older or more high risk people with the novel coronavirus, they can also experience strokes, lifelong lung damage, and organ failure if they get sick. They might also experience anxiety and other mental health issues during and even after their illness.

It’s no wonder that people are confused about whether they should stay home, get tested, or mask up. From the beginning, the COVID-19 pandemic has been plagued by conflicting advice from health officials and politicians. The only thing that has been consistent is the push for frequent and thorough handwashing. So with the new revelation that young people are now leading the spread of infection, we should also note that it is up to officials to be coherent about what each individual citizen should do to protect themselves and each other.