Winnipeg doctor prescribes caution to youth who ignore COVID-19 risks

"Now might be a good time to remind them that they are a key part of our society and that COVID-19 easily spreads from them to others, even with the best attempts to prevent it," says microbiologist Philippe R. S. Lagacé-Wiens.

It's time for the young and the restless to skip the club scene during pandemic: St. Boniface microbiologist

Young adults hitting the social scene are putting themselves and others at risk of COVID-19, says Dr. Philippe R. S. Lagacé-Wiens. (EmmepiPhoto/Shutterstock)

Young adults and children are getting COVID-19 and we should care.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, medical and scientific views on COVID-19 have evolved, but some messages have remained the same. 

Among these: children and young adults are at low risk.

In fact, it's become a mantra of public health: the elderly, those with weakened immune systems and those with heart disease and diabetes are at greatest risk. 

The young and otherwise healthy, however, are at low risk of serious complications like hospitalization and intensive care unit admission — or death.

Neither Manitoba nor Canada are exceptions to this. 

Based on the most recent publicly available data, our Canadian experience tells us that "only" 1.2 per cent of known cases among those age 30 or younger have resulted in hospitalization. 

COVID-19 knows no bounds and it's biological purpose is to spread from person to person.-Philippe Lagacé

What may come as a bit more of a surprise is that one in 20 intensive care unit admissions in Canada has been for children and adults under 30. 

Three of every 1,000 cases in this group end up in the ICU and three out of every 10,000 have died. 

While the mortality rate appears small, it's a startlingly high number for a young population. 

Manitoba increase 

In Manitoba, the recent uptick in cases in younger groups has led to hospital admissions in patients in their 20s and 30s — and as young as 17. 

These are not innocuous. 

By the time any person, young or old, needs hospitalization, they often need oxygen, some will need to go to the ICU and some will die. Many who survive will have long recoveries ahead of them.

Yet with numbers that (on the surface) appear so small, and a consistent message that young people are at low risk, it should come as no surprise that young people increasingly admit to behaviours that put them at risk. 

In particular, adults in their 20s are now noted to have double the average rate of infection of the general Canadian population. 

Lately, not a day goes by without some news piece mentioning younger demographics' social gatherings, bar-hopping and late-night parties at local watering holes, potentially causing clusters of COVID-19 in this population. 

Recently, Winnipeg bars and restaurants have had to modify hours to curtail these behaviours, no doubt resulting in economic hardship for owners and exasperated sighs from the young adults who just want to move on from pandemic fatigue. 

Now's the time

But now might be a good time to remind them that they are a key part of our society and that COVID-19 easily spreads from them to others, even with the best attempts to prevent it. 

Between 10 and 20 per cent, sometimes more, of close contacts of any case will get the disease. 

Many of these same teens and young adults look after parents and grandparents. Many work the essential jobs requiring daily interactions with the public. And many go to workplaces and schools where they interact with older, more vulnerable adults — including care homes and hospitals. 

Their age may put them at lower risk of severe disease, but it does not reduce the risk of transmitting the disease to the more vulnerable members of society. 

COVID-19 knows no bounds and it's biological purpose is to spread from person to person.

Basically, asking young people to avoid intense, close and risky social gatherings is not just about them, it's about all of us. This is perhaps the most convincing argument for young people to adopt COVID-19 fighting behaviours. 

If the disease spreads unchecked in this group, there is a strong possibility that it will spill over into other groups. This will invariably mean more cases of COVID-19, and in turn, tighter restrictions, more closures, more social upheaval, more job losses and more deaths. 

In the worst-case scenario, a complete shutdown reminiscent of the late spring is not out of the question. 

A big ask

I am neither naive enough nor old enough to think that this is not a big ask. 

I know that many young adults (like I was, not very long ago) thrive in the very social environments I have called out as risky. 

I know that social isolation, and the mental health impact that comes with it, may very well be more damaging to some individuals than the disease itself. I have seen this firsthand in my own children and felt the impacts of it acutely.

At this point, I am not asking that social gatherings stop completely. Nor do I want the restaurants, pubs and bars implicated in the recent upsurge of cases in younger adults to close. (That would leave their patrons to engage in the same behaviours elsewhere.)

Keep your distance and keep it masked — our school kids are managing to do it and so can all of us.- Philippe Lagacé

I know there is a balance that mitigates the risk of disease going unchecked — and the impact to individuals and the economy. 

But I ask all people — particularly young adults — to keep groups small (two friends are better than none and way safer than nine).  And keep the same small social circle for all gatherings, at least for now. 

If you are out with friends, do not yell because the music is too loud. Few things spread COVID-19 faster than getting too close and yelling and singing. If it is too loud to talk, that place does not deserve your business right now. 

Lastly, keep your distance and keep it masked — our school kids are managing to do it and so can all of us. 

I am certain this pandemic will not last forever.  Lives will return to a semblance of what we knew before the word "coronavirus" became part of everyone's vocabulary. 

In fact, I am confident that by this time next year or sooner, we will be celebrating again, and we will all have tales of the great pandemic of 2020 that will last for generations.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Philippe R. S. Lagacé-Wiens is a medical microbiologist in Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital.


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