As more seniors get vaccinated for COVID-19, Canada is seeing a shift in the coronavirus spread with an increasing number of cases among the younger population.
While infections have declined in Canadians aged 80 and older since January, cases are now highest among young adults aged 20 to 39, according to the latest national public health modelling released March 26.
The rise of new more transmissible variants, vaccination programs focusing on the elderly and coronavirus fatigue are driving the spread among the younger group, experts say.
“It is important to remember that although severe illness is less common in younger age groups, serious or prolonged illness can occur at any age, and there are emerging concerns about increasing severity of the B.1.1.7 variant in adults,” Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief health officer, said during a March 26 news conference.
In the largest province of Ontario, new variants of concern (VOCs) account for 67 per cent of the total cases, as of March 28. And the B.1.1.7 variant makes up more than 90 per cent of the total variant cases.
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said the younger demographic is a natural target for the coronavirus as it evolves and mutates.
In other words, the virus has gotten better at attacking younger people, who are not yet up for vaccination, he explained.
“It’s obvious that COVID would want to evolve in order to be able to affect populations that it actually didn’t have as much success with previously,” he told Global News.
It is a worrying trend with many ending up in hospital.
In Ontario, patients aged 59 years and younger currently make up 46 per cent of new COVID-19 admissions to intensive care units (ICU), according to the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. This is up from 30 per cent prior to the start of the provincewide lockdown in December 2020.
Health officials in British Columbia are also growing concerned, as an increasing number of people in their 30s around the province are being admitted to the hospital, and even the ICU.
“This particular age group is getting hit hard and the severity is quite high,” said Kevin Coombs, professor of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba.
Coombs said the “cytokine storm” phenomenon, when the body’s immune response overreacts to an infectious agent, could be why young people are getting more sick from the virus.
“People who have the most robust immune responses are the young group,” he said, making it more likely that their bodies attack their own cells and tissues rather than just fight off the virus.
“So in many ways, it’s a double- or even triple-edged sword, which is now contributing to that particular age group being the one that’s being hit the hardest.”
Young people also make up a large percentage of the essential workforce, putting them at a greater risk of getting COVID-19.
In Ontario’s York Region, about 10 per cent of recent cases have originated from a number of workplaces, particularly manufacturing plants, said Karim Kurji, the region’s medical officer of health.
“Young people tend to be involved in many essential work activities and are probably still contracting the variants at a rate that we would not wish them to be,” Kurji told Global News in an interview.
More than half of the cases occurring between the ages of 20 and 65 are associated with close contact within households, he added.
B.C.’s provincial health officer Bonnie Henry also said last week that the biggest issue is COVID-19 spreading through crowded workplaces and households.
Several provinces have recently eased restrictions, allowing outdoor dining and fitness classes in some places and opening gyms in others.
Social behaviour as pandemic fatigue sets in is a “major contributing” factor causing COVID-19 spread among the youngsters, Coombs said.
“The lack of masking, the aggregating in large groups, the partying, the shouting, the very close contact, that’s exactly what spreads the virus,” he added.
A recent video captured on social media showed scores of young adults without masks partying at a private restaurant at Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna, B.C.
In a news conference on Monday, B.C.’s Premier John Horgan appealed to the young people to curtail their social activity.
However, his comments drew backlash as he remarked that those aged 20 to 39 do not pay as much attention to the health briefings, and that puts everyone else in a “challenging situation.”
Meanwhile, an outbreak at the University of Waterloo in Ontario spread to all of the school’s residences on Monday.
The outbreak stems from a “cluster” of COVID-19 cases connected to series of gatherings attended by students from both the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier from March 4 through March 7.
Back to college
Over the past year, colleges and universities have switched to full-time online learning.
Since young people are not eligible to receive the vaccine for some time, they remain at a greater risk for contracting the virus.
In the United States, Rutgers University announced last week that all students would be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine before returning to the campus in the fall.
In Canada, which is lagging behind in its rollout compared to the U.S., the federal government has set a September target for vaccinating all Canadians who wish to get the COVID-19 vaccines.
Public health officials confirmed this week that Canada will have enough doses to ensure that every Canadian who wishes to be vaccinated can be fully inoculated with the two doses by the end of the summer.
Going forward, “vaccination will be key” in determining whether students can return to campus in the fall, said Coombs.
Furness said if COVID-19 continues to circulate, then there might be an opportunity to offer remote learning for unvaccinated people as has been the case throughout the pandemic.
Given the vaccine supply, York Region will be vaccinating as many students as it possibly can before the new term starts, Kurji said.
“It should be relatively safe to go back into the fall.”