Adults Under 30 Least Likely to Wear Mask, Socially Distance

  • The CDC found behaviors that will stop the spread of COVID-19, including distancing and avoiding crowded spaces, was lowest among people between the ages of 18 and 29.
  • Younger people have a lower risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, but the infection can become severe in people of all ages, including those who are otherwise healthy.
  • COVID-19 can also trigger inflammation in the heart, which can lead to lasting cardiac damage in people of all ages, young and old.

New evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that younger people have loosened up on social distancing.

In a report published Tuesday, the CDC says that between April and June 2020, key mitigation behaviors, including distancing and avoiding crowded spaces, was lowest among people between the ages of 18 and 29.

The findings highlight the need to inform young adults not only about their potential risk, but important role in the spread of COVID-19.

Though younger people have a lower risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, the infection can become severe in people of all ages, including those who are otherwise healthy.

“We also know from prior studies that young persons in their 20s can serve as a reservoir for transmission to older persons. Reducing the infection rate among persons in their 20s–30s is critical to gaining control of the pandemic,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.

Young adults have cut back on social distancing 

To measure how strictly people have been adhering to the recommended safety precautions against COVID-19, the CDC surveyed adults over the age of 18.

The surveys, which asked participants about the safety measures they’ve been taking, were conducted in three waves: late April, early May, and late May.

The CDC found that the percentage of adults using face masks increased from 78 percent in April to 89 percent in June.

All other key mitigation behaviors — social distancing, avoiding crowds and public spaces, and handwashing — declined.

The only exception was avoiding restaurants, which didn’t change much.

In general, younger adults reported being less strict with the mitigation behaviors compared to older adults.

The CDC suspects this could be why COVID-19 rates among young Americans surged this summer.

According to the CDC, the findings highlight the need to reach young Americans and encourage them to adhere to safety precautions.

“Public health messaging needs to emphasize the importance of physical distancing and wearing masks, particularly among the 18–29 age group,” Glatter said.

Young adults play a big role in community transmission

Because we don’t yet have a preventative vaccine or a cure for COVID-19, our behavior is currently our best tool in preventing transmission, according to Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease specialist with Stanford Health Care.

“If you have to ask people to do something to prevent disease, your weakest link is the people who aren’t going to do it. This virus, if there’s any part of the population who doesn’t participate in mitigation, the virus won’t go away,” says Maldonado.

Throughout the pandemic, researchers have learned that young adults likely play a huge role in spreading COVID-19.

The CDC recently reported that early increases in COVID-19 cases for people under 25 was followed by an uptick in cases in older people who are more likely to be hospitalized or die from the disease.

Asymptomatic cases, which are more likely to occur in younger people, are also like to fuel community transmission.

Because asymptomatic people can spread COVID-19 without even knowing they’re infected, it’s crucial for everyone to continue social distancing, washing their hands, and wearing masks.

“This is a population-based disease, where we all have to participate in the prevention so we can prevent spread to everybody,” Maldonado said.

The coronaviruses causes chains of transmission that are invisible to the human eye, explains Maldonado.

So while a young adult might perceive their risk as low, they could contract the virus and give it to a friend who might infect another friend who could give it their grandmother or a relative who has diabetes or heart disease.

“The reality is that we live in a society where those young people, if they’re not distancing, they’re going to infect other people in their communities who are at high risk,” Maldonado said.

Young adults aren’t risk-free

It’s true that older adults who contract the coronavirus have a greater risk of hospitalization and mortality compared to younger adults.

This may have caused some young people to feel invincible against COVID-19.

“[This feeling] may lead to poor decision-making and lack of adherence to key mitigation measures such as wearing masks or social distancing, which can be a matter of life or death,” Glatter said.

But Maldonado says a low risk doesn’t mean younger people aren’t going to get sick or die from COVID-19 as well.

“We know that about 3 percent of people between 18 and 35 who get sick can die, so it’s not zero,” Maldonado said.

A JAMA study published in September looked at more than 3,200 young adults ages 18 to 34 who were hospitalized with COVID-19 and found that 21 percent needed intensive care, 10 percent required mechanical ventilation, and about 3 percent died. Another 3 percent who recovered were discharged to another healthcare facility to continue their rehabilitation.

There have been reports of young adults being “long-haulers” — their symptoms linger for months, diminishing their quality of life.

COVID-19 can also trigger inflammation in the heart, which can lead to lasting cardiac damage in people of all ages, young and old.

The future of the pandemic depends on everyone’s behavior, no matter their age or personal risk.

Social distancing, face coverings, and avoiding crowds are critical for reducing transmission of COVID-19.

“Going forward, we must change our behavior in order to gain control of the pandemic. Our lives depend on it,” Glatter said.

The bottom line

New evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that younger people have loosened up on social distancing. The findings highlight the need to inform young adults not only about their potential risk, but their important role in the spread of COVID-19.

Young people can be key drivers of community transmission, and mitigation behaviors among this age group are critical for controlling the pandemic.


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