Coronavirus: Could young people spreading COVID-19 amongst themselves lead to more deaths?

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As coronavirus cases rise exponentially in some European countries, some officials are blaming young adults in their 20s in 30s for driving the increase.

UK health minister Matt Hancock said that young people ignoring social distancing measures were responsible for the recent rise in cases in the United Kingdom, with young adults having a higher incidence rate than others.

Public Health France has said repeatedly the virus has been circulating particularly among young adults between the ages of 20 and 39. Roughly 40% of new cases were among the same age group in Spain in late August.

This may be the reason that hospitalisations have remained lower than the beginning of the pandemic in March, experts say, but it also is concerning for containing the spread of the virus and preventing a second wave with thousands of deaths.

Several young adults told Euronews that they don’t necessarily respect social distancing among themselves but try to be extra careful around those who are at risk for contracting a more severe version of the virus.

Yet experts warn that letting the virus spread among younger adults will only lead to rising case numbers, and eventually to rising hospitalisations.

There are young people who can “become seriously ill and even die” from COVID-19, emphasises WHO Europe’s Dr Richard Pebody, an epidemiologist who leads the High Threat Pathogens Team.

Since the beginning of the March, more than 1,000 young adults between the ages of 20 and 40 have been in the ICU in France, for instance, a little over 5% of the total number of people who were in intensive care in the country.

“Though young people, in general, have a low risk of hospitalisation and deaths, it appears they experience a much higher risk of persistent or chronic symptoms,” said Professor Debby Bogaert, Chair of Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Edinburgh.

“It is momentarily still unknown who is at risk of long COVID symptoms, but current data show the young healthy and active generation is not spared.”

Results released from a recent application study by a team at King’s College London found that 60,000 of 300,000 people with COVID-19 had symptoms that lasted more than three months, a finding that UK officials admitted was worrying.

“Six months on, many people are still suffering chronic fatigue, muscle pain and breathing difficulties. Previously fit and healthy people reduced to barely being able to function,” Hancock said in a statement to parliament.

Euronews spoke with several young women who said that they had recurrent bouts of symptoms including tachycardia and fatigue after having seemingly mild or moderate COVID-19.

Many experts are concerned that rising case numbers even amongst younger adults will lead to higher hospitalisations and eventually deaths as the virus continues to spread in the population.

Spain and France are already seeing rising hospitalisations after weeks of rising case numbers amongst primarily young adults.

“With a general increase in community spread, especially through young people who experience possibly no or little symptoms, it will become harder to trace contacts and thereby new cases, and thereby contain further spread,” said Professor Bogaert.

“For most effective containment, community numbers should be as low as possible,” she added.

Young adults socialising with friends often have more contacts than older adults as well making it more difficult to isolate and test people who may have been in contact with a positive case.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it’s important not to blame young people but rather to engage them in the response.

“Our message to youth is have fun but be wise: connect with friends but at a safe distance and not in large groups so you don’t give the virus opportunities to spread,” said Dr Pebody.

The WHO’s regional director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, has said that the coronavirus is a “tornado with a long tail” that will likely be passed from younger adults to the older population. He emphasised that “no one is invincible”.

Early on in the epidemic, some experts had said that letting the virus spread through the community could lead to immunity.

But often when experts speak of population immunity, that would be through administering a vaccine.

“​A herd immunity strategy is unlikely to be successful, and even a dangerous path to take since nobody knows whether at all a state of herd immunity could be reached,” said Professor Bogaert.

“Most COVID-19 patients who have had mild infections, asymptomatic infection, and severe illness do develop some level of immune response which provides protection against reinfection – but we do not know how strong it is and how long it will last,” said Dr Pebody.

He added that the only way to “safely” and “efficiently” have a 65-70% of the world’s population immune to the virus would be through a vaccine.

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