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Young People Hold the Key: Flattening the Curve of the Coronavirus Pandemic

To beat COVID-19, young people have a significant role to play. Their behaviors and actions can dramatically alter the trajectory of this virus.

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By Susan Blumenthal MD and David Xiang

COVID-19, a disease caused by a novel coronavirus, has been framed as disproportionately affecting seniors and those with chronic medical conditions. As such, many younger people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, have been lured into a false sense of security that they are immune and essentially not impacted by the pandemic.

However, this could not be farther from the truth.

Based on projections from the CDC, an estimated 160–214 million people in the United States could become infected. As many as 200,000 to 1.7 million might die from the disease. Furthermore, as many as 20 million in America might require hospitalization, overwhelming our nation’s health care system, which has only 925,000 staffed hospital beds. Recent reports from France and Italy also reveal that young people have experienced serious illness. New CDC analyses also indicate that one-fifth of infected Americans, between the ages 20 to 44 years old, are being hospitalized. 12% of the intensive care patients in America are between the ages of 20 and 44, and in New York City, nearly half of the coronavirus cases are found in adults under age 45, demonstrating that COVID-19 poses a severe threat to younger generations.

US officials are emphasizing the importance for young people for their own health and to prevent spreading the disease to others to take precautions, practice good hygiene, and observe social distancing, which includes avoiding gatherings of more than ten people. Many states have issued stay-at-home directives, impacting three out of four Americans. Yet, feelings of invincibility and a sense of immortality as well as the initial misleading reports that young people are not seriously affected has fueled a lack of social distance among this population group.

When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are running out of time to flatten the curve of infections. Viral spread in the US is rapidly increasing. We have more confirmed cases than anywhere else in the world, with over 226,374 infected and over 5,775 deaths.

So what is meant by social distancing, and why is it so important?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), social distancing is “a way to keep people from interacting closely or frequently enough to spread an infectious disease.” It is a practice of deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness, recommended to be at least six feet away in the case of this coronavirus. In daily life, this means staying home, taking a bike ride or hike by yourself , communicating with friends and loved ones via online technologies and social media, and not participating in gatherings of people.

Based on analytical modeling for how the coronavirus might spread, experts believe that social distancing can have the most impact on reducing viral transmission. It has been reported that 80% of cases of the disease are mild or even asymptomatic. That means that even if infected, young people might not display any symptoms. However, they operate as “ideal” carriers—termed “superspreaders”—for the virus transmitting it to others. Additionally, this coronavirus can remain on hard surfaces such as countertops, chairs, and tables. Based on a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, this coronavirus can live on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours and survive on cardboard for up to 24 hours.

As described by numerous health experts, the main benefit of social distancing is to flatten the curve which means using protective practices to slow the rate of COVID-19 infection so hospitals have room, supplies and doctors for all of the patients who need care.  If done in conjunction with good hygiene practices, such as frequently washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds, coughing into your elbow or a tissue, avoiding touching your face, and disinfecting surfaces, we have the potential to stem the tide.

Imagine this: if a large number of patients suddenly flooded the healthcare system over a few days, many hospitals would be overwhelmed and unable to care for all those in need, resulting in many more deaths. We are about to face a three-pronged tsunami: 1) not enough protective gear; 2) health care workers who get sick and are not able to practice; and 3) a lack of hospital beds. However, if patients arrived at a slower rate, the healthcare system could possibly adapt and respond more effectively.

If young people do not heed the warnings of our nation’s health experts, they can become sick or spread the disease unknowingly, potentially infecting loved ones, seniors, and those who have medical conditions. This could result in preventable illness and deaths.

Even one person who is infected can transmit the virus to two or three other people. Therefore, if social distancing is not practiced by almost everyone, this could translate into an irreversible disaster for many homes and hospitals. There are not enough lifesaving ventilator machines in our country, and even by increasing production, the demand may not be met soon enough. Other nations such as Italy have been overwhelmed by very sick patients in respiratory failure as ventilators are scarce and must be rationed.

Universities across the nation have closed, sending their students home with a message to promote social distancing. However, this is not sufficient. Young people must realize that this pandemic will affect all of us, regardless of our age. We must keep the greater good in mind. We all must practice social distancing, especially the younger generations, and strongly remind those around us to do the same. Now, more than ever, is a chance to show our resolve, compassion, and unity.

It’s also a time to stay connected online and with social media to friends and family and to give back through virtual activities in your community such as tutoring young students who are at home. You can also help to spread the word to others about best practices through this social media campaign at beatthevirus.org and #BeatTheVirus.  Staying connected with others, finding ways to volunteer and contribute to our communities, and feeling a sense of social connectedness will help us get through this turbulent time together.

And so, let’s take care of ourselves and each other. We might be asymptomatic and still transmit infections to others or we might get sick if infected with COVID-19. Let’s remember that every time you gather in a restaurant or bar if they are still open in your state, travel on a train or plane, or meet for social reasons, you are placing those around you in harm’s way. That’s why it is so important to practice social distancing combined with good hygiene practices, not only for yourself, but for all those you love and for others in your community who are at high risk for this disease.

This pandemic can seem overwhelming and challenging, but each one of us has an important role to play. We must treat COVID-19 as a serious threat to our futures. Let’s lead by example in social distancing and practicing good hygiene, and in so doing help chart the path towards a healthier future for us, our families, and country in the months and years ahead.

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal Markey, M.D. (ret) is former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General, Senior Fellow in Health Policy at New America, Senior Medical Advisor at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, and a Clinical Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. She also serves on the Visiting Committee of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Admiral Blumenthal is the Public Health Advisor and co-founder of the #BeatTheVirus education campaign. She has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the US Public Health Service for her landmark contributions to advancing health in the United States and globally.

David Xiang, a former health-policy intern at New America, is a senior at Harvard University. He will be a first year medical student at Harvard School of Medicine this fall. In 2015, he was selected as a National Student Poet, America’s highest honor for youth poets

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