New cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, are increasing in youths under the age of 20 in Ontario, according to new research from the University of Guelph.
The study comes as Ontario public health units have reported increases in cases for those in their 20s compared to older people in Toronto, Hamilton, York Region and Peel Region — which have been delayed in entering Stage 2 due to its caseload.
But it’s not exactly clear why cases have been increasing for young people in these regions, making it difficult to know how to target the problem, experts told Global News.
The research, which has not been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal, examined data from Ontario public health units and found that while cases were declining for other age groups as of mid-May, they were on the rise in young people within regions that carry the brunt of the province’s infections.
This increase for the under 20 age bracket isn’t surprising as schools and daycares have been closed in the province, and young people likely want to see their friends, said Ed McBean, the lead researcher of the study and a professor of engineering at the university.
“Now we’re entering the summer period where it’s really nice to be outside, and the potential is for the whole scenario of welcoming friends, that’s probably what it is, but we don’t know with absolute certainty,” McBean said on Global News 640 Radio in Toronto on June 16.
It’s unusual for children to have worse health outcomes if they are infected with COVID-19, but the worry comes if they bring the illness home to their families, said McBean.
The rest of Ontario outside of the densely-populated Greater Toronto Area have flattened the curve and are not seeing these same issues, he added. These regions have more opportunities for social engagements for young people, he said.
Provincial data this week showed that almost half of Ontario’s new cases announced on June 15 were in Toronto, and nearly a quarter was in the Peel region, representing part of Toronto’s suburbs.
Findings from the study also showed that in Peel region, cases for people under 20 rose from two per day in mid-April to around nine per day by the end of May. During that same period in Toronto, cases rose from four per day to more than 10 in that age bracket.
McBean’s advice to young people in these regions is to be extra vigilant, to continue to distance and wash hands and keep in mind more vulnerable people will be facing the consequences for the actions of those under 30.
“Once we can flatten this curve and keep it down, we do not want resurgence and to have to go into another lockdown as a consequence,” he said.
Young people may be socializing like ‘normal’
New COVID-19 cases in heavily populated regions in Ontario are also seeing a spike in cases for people in their 20s.
In Hamilton as of June 17, 48 per cent of positive cases in the last 10 days are individuals in their 20s. Overall, people in that age bracket make up 20 per cent of the city’s cases, which is higher than any other demographic.
In the Peel region, that age demographic makes up nearly 19 per cent of all cases. In comparison, 6.5 per cent of that region’s cases are ages 70-79 and 11.4 per cent are 60-69.
Young people tend to pay less attention to their health and are less likely to perceive that they may have some symptoms, and are more likely to want to engage in social activities following lockdown — which could be one theory for the increase, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta.
This is not to suggest that all young people are spending time indoors together, but they may be engaging in more practices that break social distancing compared to other groups, she said.
“It might just be a pattern of behaviour that is slightly riskier, but enough to promote the spread of infection,” said Saxinger.
The reopening of the province may have prompted some to believe they can behave like “normal”, even when the Greater Toronto Area continues to be the source of the majority of Ontario’s cases, she said.
Communicating the nuance of the reopening to young people is difficult, and without that clear messaging, teens and 20-somethings may not be assessing their own risks accurately when they socialize, she added.
“(The increase) is probably related to just a slight general increase in riskier activities in a group that is not as good at evaluating their own risk,” she said.
Saxinger says a solution could be more targeted messaging from the Ontario government that is more likely to stick with young people, even through social media where it could resonate more
Dr. Gerald Evans, the chair of the infectious disease department at Queen’s University, also agrees that the rise in cases comes down to young people wanting to see others following months in isolation.
“As they’ve seen from their perspective the relaxing of some of these social distancing measures, they’ve quickly gone back to what they’ve experienced was normal socialization for someone their age,” said Evans.
Young people tend to socialize in larger groups and often indoors, he said. Those are both factors that would create larger transmission rates, he added.
As well, because infections in older people have decreased, it may make the younger demographic’s case counts appear more starkly higher, he said.
Gathering in parks in large crowds — like the infamous congregating of young people at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park at the end of May — appears problematic, but the risk of transmission reduces significantly when individuals are outdoors, said Evans. But he says he wonders how many people from the park on that day actually got tested.
Earlier in June, Toronto’s medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, said the city hasn’t seen an increase in COVID-19 cases from that day.
“That’s because there are air currents with the wind blowing even on a calm day. When that happens you’re going to get less transmission,” he said.
He also echoes Saxinger in that young people may be less perceptive if they have symptoms and are possibly less likely to get tested, and may continue to socialize even when mildly sick.
Through his research on sexually transmitted infections, Evans says it’s understood young people are more likely to ignore their symptoms, and not get tested. Ontario does not provide the demographics of those tested in their daily epidemiologic summaries.
For young people overall, he recommends if you are going to socialize, to do it outside.
“That’s at least one effective step in reducing transmission,” he said.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
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. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.
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