Canadians in their 20s who received a positive novel coronavirus diagnosis in March are warning other young people that flouting social distancing rules could leave you battling a serious illness and infecting others.
Current data about COVID-19 shows the virus tends to cause worse outcomes in the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. In China, 80 per cent of deaths were among people who were at least 60 years of age.
However, the World Health Organization has cautioned youth globally that a significant portion of hospitalizations around the world are people under 50 years of age. “This virus could put you in hospital for weeks or even kill you,” said WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 33 per cent of the country’s COVID-19 cases are people under the age of 40. On April 4, Alberta health officials announced that a woman in her 20s from the Edmonton area died of COVID-19. While it’s not clear whether she had any underlying health conditions, her death illustrates the seriousness of this illness, said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer at a press conference.
“This is a tragic reminder that it is not only the elderly or those with underlying conditions who are at risk,” she said.
Even if the new coronavirus doesn’t land you in the hospital — young people can infect others if they don’t practise social distancing, and those people could have worse outcomes.
That’s what Justin Alexanderson, 29 and Emily Peck, 25, were concerned about when they both received positive cases of COVID-19 in mid-March.
‘You have a responsibility…to stay inside’
The couple, who live in downtown Toronto, say they believe they caught the virus after going out in the city the night of March 14 when restaurants and bars were still open and busy.
It took about five days for any symptoms to manifest, said Alexanderson, who works as a business manager in the auto industry.
At first, he was experiencing some minor headaches which didn’t seem in line with COVID-19 symptoms, he said.
According to health officials, the symptoms of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing, much like a cold or flu.
“I thought I had a sinus infection. I even went to the doctor and got prescribed anti-biotics… and he didn’t even think of COVID-19,” he said.
In the days before they felt any kind of symptoms, both Peck and Alexanderson were still going into their offices and going on runs together.
But when the symptoms began to escalate it felt like being “hit by a bus,” said Peck. That’s when she realized their illness could be COVID-19.
“Both of us are pretty healthy individuals and we don’t really get sick that often. So it was kind of strange that we both got it pretty much at the same time, and it was pretty severe,” she said.
“Once it did set in, it was no joke,” said Alexanderson.
“[We] were both completely bedridden for two days at least, and it was a horrible time.”
Symptoms included feeling disoriented, confused, and completely collapsing into bed when they both came home later that week, explained Alexanderson. That weekend, a week after they initially went out together, they found out people they had spent time with on March 14 had tested positive.
They contacted Toronto Western Hospital and went in to get tested, letting staff know they were experiencing severe headaches, body aches, fatigue and that they had interacted with others who tested positive, he said.
Hours later they were given positive results online, he said. While they were relieved to know the source of their illness, both became concerned about everyone they had come into contact with, during the week before their symptoms began, he added.
“I don’t think fear for ourselves really came across us, just because mostly you see in the media that younger people are better able to get through it. But we were just worried about if we had come in contact with someone that’s more vulnerable, that maybe they might not be as lucky,” said Peck.
Now that they have been isolating since their diagnosis, they’ve posted their experience on Instagram so that other young people know how serious COVID-19 is and why there should be concern about passing it on to others, said Alexanderson.
“This sickness is not something to be taken lightly. You don’t stay inside to not get it, you stay inside to not give it. As a young person that is potentially asymptomatic to this entire virus, you have a responsibility to the older generation and others to stay inside,” he said.
“Social distancing needs to be taken very very seriously.”
Could have ‘really harmed some other people’
Carmen Lee is yet another Canadian who is pleading for young people to take the novel coronavirus outbreak seriously.
The 23-year-old Calgarian contracted COVID-19 while working as an au pair in Barcelona.
She wasn’t overly concerned when she developed a cough on March 9, but within two days, it turned into a nasty cough followed by a fever and breathing problems.
“I was having an uncomfortable breathing experience,” Lee said.
“Every time I was breathing in, my lungs felt very irritated. It made me want to continuously cough to clear my lungs.”
It was at that moment she knew she needed to self-isolate. Lee was instructed to call a coronavirus hotline to report her symptoms, and then a doctor would come to her home. Hospitals in Spain were following that process at the time to control the number of patients they received, she said.
After two long days, the doctor never showed up.
But this didn’t just happen to Lee – her friend also waited three days for a doctor who never came and she landed in the hospital with pneumonia.
So Lee decided it was time to head to the hospital.
“It was a bit scary, quite busy and there were a lot of very, very sick people around me that clearly needed emergency care,” she said. Lee tested positive for COVID-19 on March 13.
She said the results didn’t surprise her, but she worried about the health of those she had interacted with, like the family she was living with – their children and friends, and people on public transit.
“There were just a lot of emotions that were coming over me like ‘this is really real and I could have potentially really harmed some other people.’ It was kind of a sad feeling.”
Lee spent 14 days in quarantine trapped in her Barcelona home.
“I literally lived in a room and it was really awful,” she said. As soon as the 14 days passed, she flew home to Calgary on March 25.
After seeing first hand how quickly and severely COVID-19 escalated in Spain, Lee is urging Canadians to adhere to public health recommendations like physical distancing, so we don’t experience that situation too.
“We’re not invincible to this,” Lee said.
“Young people can get really, really sick and it can potentially be fatal. Look outside yourself and think about the loved ones in your family… We really have to do our part because what I was seeing in Spain was really heartbreaking.”
Trip to the U.S. leads to testing positive for COVID-19
Brock Weston is also one of many young people who thought he would never test positive for COVID-19.
Weston is only 25 years old and quite active – he plays college-level hockey at Marian University in Wisconsin while studying biology and often lifts 70-pound calves when he helps out on the family farm two-and-a-half hours west of Saskatoon, Sask.
“I think it was a little bit of disbelief because I didn’t believe that I could get it,” he said.
But all of that began to change following his trip to Nashville for spring break.
On March 14, about three days after he returned to school, Weston says he woke up with a stuffy nose and sore throat. He thought it was just the flu, though, because he did not have a fever at the time or any other symptom associated with COVID-19.
As the coronavirus outbreak around the world worsened, his symptoms did as well. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was urging Canadians abroad to come home, and Weston’s university classes were cancelled. So he decided to pack up his belongings and head home to Canada.
That night, his temperature started to rise and the fever kicked in. But Weston pressed on the next morning and drove for nearly 24 hours. He also called his grandmother when he was on the way home to warn his family about how terrible he felt.
“I was just absolutely gassed by the end of the day,” he said.
“I was tired all the time. I had horrible body aches all the time. I couldn’t find a comfortable position.”
Once Weston arrived home, he self-isolated in the basement while his parents stayed on the main floor.
His fever then spiked up to 101 and he began to feel pressure in his chest when he breathed deeply. He also lost his appetite and senses of smell and taste.
“It was like I couldn’t get air to the bottom of my lungs,” Weston said.
“It felt like it just stopped halfway and then it would get kind of painful and would be followed by a cough… I didn’t eat for a couple of days. I lost like 10 pounds over four or five days.”
He did a self-assessment, which told him he should call for a referral. He phoned a clinic in town on March 19, which led to more calls until he was booked in for a test the next day.
When he arrived for testing in Lloydminster, Weston called from a parking spot and was directed to a building through a set of doors. He was instructed to sanitize and put on a mask.
Weston said a health worker took a swab resembling a large Q-Tip and inserted it high into both sides of his nose.
He was told it could take a week for results, but three days later he received a call. He had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I’m healthy and young. I play college sports,” he said. “It takes quite a bit to knock me down. But this virus knocked me down for sure.”
While Weston was in quarantine, he often saw young people posting on social media about partying and travelling. As someone who was tested positive for COVID-19, it frustrated him to see others not taking the pandemic seriously.
This prompted him to share his story on Twitter.
Weston said he’s now feeling almost 100 per cent, after lots of sleep and liquids. He has to have two negative test results to be out of quarantine.
His advice for his fellow peers who are young is to stay home and practice physical distancing.
“We’re doing this for each other,” he said.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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