The Current

Harm reduction approach is better than blaming young people for COVID-19 uptick, says neuroscientist

With COVID-19 on the rise among those under 40 in Ontario, science communicator Samantha Yammine warns that playing the blame game won’t help bring down the numbers among the young.

'Blame and shame' will just make younger people tune out: Samantha Yammine

Samantha Yammine uses social media to educate her 98,000 followers about science. (Michael Barker)

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Public health officials should adopt a harm reduction approach in response to a rise in COVID-19 cases among those under 40, and avoid blaming young people who may have been socializing over the summer, says a science communicator. 

"I think we need to really be careful about how we put blame and shame — that doesn't help," said Samantha Yammine, a neuroscientist and science communicator who regularly posts to her combined 98,000 followers across Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok.

"It's going to make people tune out," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The focus should be on helping people to minimize their exposure, while "knowing that no one's going to have a zero per cent risk," Yammine said, and aimed at "empowering people with the tools to make better decisions."

"How do I take care of my mental health, see a friend, but do so as safely as possible? Go to work because I need to pay rent, but do that as safely as possible?" 

There has been a steady growth in cases across Canada recently, with 820 cases confirmed Monday, compared to 498 two weeks ago on Aug. 31. The daily tally was above 750 on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, which has not happened on three consecutive days since late May. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Canadians to be vigilant in following public health guidelines as COVID-19 cases climb across the country. Ontario Premier Doug Ford warned that a second wave is coming and further shutdowns are possible. 8:56

Ontario reported 313 new cases on Monday, with Christine Elliott, the province's health minister, tweeting that 67 per cent of the cases were patients under 40. On Tuesday, the province announced 251 cases.

Speaking to The Current on Monday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the summer months saw a much younger demographic — 20- to 29-year-olds — suffering with COVID-19, compared to the beginning of the pandemic. 

"This is the group that we need to pay particular attention to in terms of strengthening measures," Tam said.

She also noted that recent outbreaks have not been driven by reopened businesses, such as bars and restaurants that attract a younger clientele.

"It's actually private social gatherings and community indoor events, whether they be the banquet halls, or perhaps bigger weddings."

People sit on a cement block as they wait for a table at a bar's outdoor patio in Ottawa in July. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

'Mixed messaging' part of problem

Many young people returned to socializing in bars and restaurants as they reopened early in the summer, Yammine said, reassured because if "your government told you you're allowed to do these things, it seems less scary  — it seems like it's safe."

But she added that "the part that you should only be dining with people in your bubble, I don't think that's been emphasized enough at all."

That's leading to "mixed messaging" that "completely confuses people," she said, and could be leading case numbers to "start to get a little bit out of control."

Officials also need to communicate more about what to do if there has been potential exposure, Yammine said.

"Mistakes happen — maybe I did drink too much, and I got too close and I didn't pay attention — what I do next really matters."

Knowing to stay home, isolate and get tested roughly five days after a possible exposure "could make a huge difference in stopping a potential outbreak," she said.

"We need those clear lines of communication that are shame free and open so that we can make sure that people are making the right decisions before, during and after any potential exposure."

'I was really expecting to see more of a rise like this in October but it's real and it's happening now,' said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist. 0:36

Exposures could be work related: Yammine

Yammine pointed out that the rise in cases among younger people could be related to many returning to work as government financial supports wind down, and relying on public transport to do so.

"A lot of people who are under 40, a lot of people in their 20s, they work on the front lines in places like restaurants where they might be exposed to people not wearing a mask," she told Galloway. 

Some young people are also heading back to school, while others are working in schools, she said.

"There's a lot of different factors that might force people below 40 and particularly in their 20s, let's say, to be exposed and be in less safe working conditions that might not necessarily be their fault," she said.

Yammine asked her social media followers what challenges they were experiencing at this stage of the pandemic. She posted a selection of the responses online, including concerns about peer pressure to socialize, shared housing and being unsure if roommates were observing guidelines, as well as returning to classroom environments, unemployment and financial strain.

While there have been multiple news stories over the summer of young people failing to practise physical distancing in crowded parks and beaches, Dr. Jane Philpott warned against painting all young people in a negative light.

"There are certainly a few bad actors, as there are in every age group in society," said Philpott, former federal minister of health, and now dean of the faculty of health sciences at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"But the young people that I'm seeing here on campus at Queen's University are, for the most part, really trying hard to follow the rules, to wear their masks, to do their social distancing," she told Galloway.

"I think that young people want to be part of the solution." 

Social media outreach

Yammine said that officials need to rethink how they're communicating with the younger demographics, and stop relying on broadcast TV or Twitter.

"None of the public health officials have an Instagram account or a Tik Tok account, and that's where this demographic is," she said. 

"There are no direct lines of communication with this age demographic," she said. 

Speaking to Galloway Monday, Tam said public health officials should look at engaging younger Canadians "on social media and other platforms, gaming platforms, using peer-based stories."

That might include uploading "personal testimonials from young people affected by the pandemic and the virus, so that it reaches different populations," she said.

"We have to be a lot more sophisticated with education and communication."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Isabelle Gallant and Alex Zabjeck.

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