A local disease detective says COVID-19 may have impacted young people sooner than evidence shows

Updated: Jul. 10, 2020 at 5:28 PM CDT
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Free COVID-19 testing site in the city of New Orleans.
Free COVID-19 testing site in the city of New Orleans.(Source: WVUE)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) -The number of COVID-19 cases in Louisiana is just shy of 75,000 according to numbers released on Friday (July 10) and the number of young people who have tested positive is an increasing part of the picture in the state.

Dr. Susan Hassig is a Tulane University epidemiologist and Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the school.

“The challenge right now with young people being infected is that ‘youth is immortal and invulnerable scenario’ and since we are much more opened up and younger ages are back at work perhaps in some places that may place them in contact with a lot of people or they’re engaging socially in places that may place them in contact with a lot of people,” said Hassig.

The latest numbers on the Louisiana Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard shows 16,188 known cases in the 18 to 29 age group and almost 5,000 cases involve kids under 18.

While recent videos from various venues show young people at large gatherings, Hassig does not believe it is just behavior that is behind the increase in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in young adults.

“When we’re comparing the age profile of people who are testing positive now compared to the people who were testing positive let’s say in mid-March or late March, you have to remember we were testing very differently. We were only testing people who were sick and if young people are less likely to get sick; they weren’t going to have an opportunity to be tested and be identified as positive,” she said.

But now testing criteria is more relaxed.

“I think now in part because we are testing much more broadly, allowing people to test without being symptomatic which in fact was one of the criteria if you’ll remember even just a month or so ago when we began the community-based testing you still had to be symptomatic and so that also would have probably eliminated a substantial number of young people who were in fact being infected at that time as well,” said Hassig. “So, I think now we’re getting a better picture of the intersection of youth and virus that probably was there all along but we didn’t, we weren’t accessing and testing perhaps in a way to detect it.”

But she nor state government’s health officials dismiss the link between large gatherings, a lack of social distancing and the transmission of the virus.

Dr. Alex Billioux of the Louisiana Department of Health said this week that they are working to make sure their messaging about the virus is resonating with young people.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work to try to understand by engaging college-aged individuals, what are the messages that you’re receiving on coronavirus? What is your perception of your risk?” said Billioux.

And a persistent concern is that young people may spread the virus to more vulnerable populations, like the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. “It becomes increasingly important that public health awareness and appropriate behavior is really latched on to by that population, so that they don’t continue to expand the impact the virus is having on our communities,” said Hassig.

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