Nina Cecere’s social media feed is full of friends going to parties, drinking and enjoying the summer weather in public — even as the COVID-19 pandemic rolls into its fourth month and counting.
Cecere, a 24-year-old teacher from Minneapolis, said she wishes she could go out with her friends, but she’s concerned that gathering indoors or in large groups may not be safe. She’s only meeting friends outdoors for takeout at 6-foot intervals, though she knows many friends are going to barbecues and beaches and clinking their glasses at rooftop bars.
“It’s so concerning,” Cecere said. “It’s not a lesser threat than it was two months ago.”
It’s not just a perception that young adults are more lax about pandemic precautions. The data indicate that young people have a sense of invincibility.
A web-based survey of 2,221 U.S. adults in mid-May found the lowest levels of pandemic hygiene among people between 18 and 25, according to a report in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publication. The survey included about 545 people from New York and Los Angeles and 1,676 from the rest of the United States.
Those 25 or younger reported the lowest rates of wearing masks in public, avoiding groups of more than 10, and staying 6 feet apart in any adult group. Forty-three percent said they would have felt comfortable if all pandemic restrictions had been lifted when the May 5-12 survey was conducted.
“That age group is at that sweet spot of being pretty autonomous … but also at low risk of personal bad outcomes” from COVID-19, said Stephen Kissler, a postdoctoral researcher in epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “My fear is that people who assess their own risk as low could be putting their communities at risk.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week publicly scolded young adults, saying they are putting the rest of the public at risk by not social distancing and hand-washing. The comments generated pushback on social media.
An Instagram post from a Dinkytown bar revealed a lot of interest in partying and few coronavirus-related concerns. “Liquor time,” a comment said. “How tempting,” said another. “Watch everyone get the virus in a week,” one person commented with a laughing emoji.
On Wednesday, families and other small groups were on the beach at Bde Maka Ska Park. Twenty-year-old Niko of Minneapolis sat with three friends, none of whom wore a mask. He said he has been hanging out with friends throughout the pandemic.
“[It was] definitely a smaller group of friends when it all started, but I would say the last three weeks I started hanging out with everyone again,” Niko said.
“I have no worry of myself getting it,” he said. “I don’t hang out with anyone who has it or thinks they may have it. … I never really come into contact with elderly people either.”
Niko, who declined to give his last name, wears a mask only when required. “We have to wear masks and everything at work, and that’s the only time I see people who aren’t 20,” he said.
People in their 20s account for 19% of the lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, second only to people in their 30s. Young adults are less likely than people in other age groups to have chronic health conditions like kidney and lung disease, which increase the risk of serious cases.
The statistical modeling used by Minnesota to project future case counts assumes that young adults are much less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than other groups that get infected, based on peer-reviewed data from other states. Though young adults’ risk of going on a mechanical ventilator once in the hospital is on par with other age groups, their risk of death from COVID-19 in the hospital is much lower — 5% to 10% for young adults, vs. 78% for people aged 80 or older, if a breathing machine is used, the modeling data show.
In Minnesota, only two of the 1,325 people who have died of COVID-19 have been in their 20s.
“When it comes to a lot of the guidance that we put forth for teens and young adults, it’s easy for them to think … it really doesn’t apply to them, because there is a perception of being invincible,” said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director for the state Department of Health. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a role to play in making sure that as a community, we are safe and protected.”
Dr. Renée Crichlow, a University of Minnesota family and community health physician, noted that national data from the CDC show that at least 125 people between 15 and 24 have died since the outbreak began across the U.S. Lower rates of wearing masks and social distancing will lead to a longer, more widespread outbreak, since the virus can be spread by asymptomatic people. “If you want everything open again, slow the spread by doing your part to protect other people,” Crichlow said in an e-mail.
Nick Stumo-Langer, 27, a recent graduate of the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said some official statistics showing lower rates of hospitalization and death among the young likely contribute to the long lines of young adults outside bars on weekends.
“A lot of it comes from this perception that people my age are immune to COVID and the dangers around it,” he said. “I definitely think it’s chalked up to that messaging that, if you don’t have underlying health conditions and are under 50, then you’re fine.”
Stumo-Langer said he wonders whether young adults consider how their night out could end up spreading COVID-19 to older family members. “I would feel awful if something were to happen, and it could be traced back to me wanting to go have a cheap gin and tonic,” he said.
Kissler noted that most transmissions happen in household settings, so young adults should talk to their roommates before heading into risky situations.
“This outbreak has — and should — really make us more mindful of the people with whom we are living,” he said.