Health officials are imploring young people to wear masks and practice social distancing as coronavirus transmission among younger Americans continued to drive record outbreaks in several states.
The pleas come as governors in Texas and Florida instituted new limits on bars and alcohol consumption to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, citing the skyrocketing number of young people who are contracting it. At the White House Friday, Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the Trump administration's coronavirus task force, in its first briefing in weeks, urged young people to take the virus more seriously.
"Younger Americans have a particular responsibility to make sure that they're not carrying the coronavirus into settings where they would expose the most vulnerable," Pence said.
Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said younger people are often asymptomatic or have mild symptoms but can easily spread the virus to older or immune compromised patients.
While the virus is most dangerous to the elderly, it can be devastating to younger victims as well, health professionals said. Younger coronavirus patients are a widening percentage of total coronavirus hospitalizations, with those in the 18 to 49 age group growing from about 27% of hospitalizations the week ending March 7 to 35% last week, CDC figures show.
Officials across the country — from Ohio to Arizona — said coronavirus cases among young people were spiking as many red states that were slow to shut down in the early days of the pandemic threw their doors back open again.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, on Friday closed bars except for delivery and take out, limited restaurant capacity to 50% and closed popular rafting and tubing businesses that drove hundreds of young people to gather on spots near New Braunfels and the Comal River. More than half of new cases in the counties that encompass Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio came among the young, authorities said.
Mark Escott, Austin's medical director, said case investigation and contact tracing are challenging because people have been interacting with more people in recent weeks. His team recently learned about a large party in the city's western suburbs that attracted 300 to 400 high schoolers to a single location. The students were together for hours.
"There is concern about substantial transmission, and there's an effort now to identify those individuals," said Escott, who did contact tracing for another cluster of young people who went to Cabo San Lucas for spring break and brought the virus home.
Escott said increasing numbers of young people are ending up in the ICU and on ventilators because so many are infected with the virus. Escott said some young people will be forever changed by the virus, unable to return to a normal life or work.
"This is a devastating disease, and this is not something you want to take chances with because the impact is just so variable that it's very hard to predict who's going to do well and who is not," he said.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, said nearly half of all coronavirus cases diagnosed after the state reopened in late April have been among people under 35. The vast majority — 70% — of cases since reopening have been diagnosed in people under 50. Stitt said the state will not order any businesses to close. More than 12,000 Oklahomans have been diagnosed with coronavirus.
Tulsa health director Bruce Dart said new cases and hospitalizations are at record highs; 40% of the cases and a quarter of hospitalizations from the virus are among people ages 18 to 35. Last weekend 6,200 people attended an indoor rally with President Donald Trump.
"They're conducting themselves like it's pre-covid, and that's not going to work anymore," Dart said. The younger cohort is "not social distancing, not wearing masks or paying attention to handwashing. These are the only tools we have to break the chain of transmission now."
Dart said it was too soon to tell if any new cases would stem from Trump's rally, where several of his Secret Service and staff tested positive for the virus, and that any impact would not show until later next week.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said earlier this week that the state had a "real explosion" of cases among the young - including a drop in the median age of new cases that plummeted from age 65 to 35. DeSantis's decision to close bars is an attempt to quell risky socializing; in recent days officials yanked liquor licenses from bars that were not adhering to social distancing and capacity guidelines.
Geoff Beere, a student at the University of Miami and a club promoter, said that when bars in Florida reopened in June, they were quickly packed - even those that tried to enforce social distancing. He said students were tired of being cooped up during the statewide stay-at-home order.
"College kids are gonna be a little bit more stupid about things than older people, maybe a little more reckless," he said.
Now that bars and clubs have been effectively shut again as the state prohibits businesses from selling alcohol indoors, he predicts parties and pool parties that flourished at the beginning of the pandemic will do so again.
Beere said he is cognizant of the spread of coronavirus among his age group, but he is not overly concerned.
"I don't feel invincible, and the virus is obviously serious," he said. "But in the same sense, I'm young, I'm healthy, and it's not likely to kill someone like me. But I know it can affect somebody else."
Beere wears a mask during his daily life when he goes to the gym or grocery shopping, but not when he is at a club or a party.
"I'm not anti-mask," Beere said. "But you really can't drink with it on."
In Oklahoma, several large-scale events have been canceled as the state's cases have spiked, including a popular Oktoberfest in Tulsa and the state fair. But in-person high school graduations have gone on, and several communities are having Fourth of July celebrations. The party has not stopped at Dripping Springs, the party cove at Grand Lake O' the Cherokees in northeastern Oklahoma, where revelers on boats tie up, drink, mingle in the water and turn up the country music.
"You're taking a chance going down there, but it's slimmer than going to a night club or bar surrounded by people you don't know," said Kaden Clites, a Butler Community College student from Wichita who spent a day on a boat in the party cove with some friends earlier this month.
Restaurants and bars in Oklahoma are operating without restrictions, and Stitt said in a news conference Thursday that would continue.
"Closing down the economy is not part of the discussions at this point," Stitt said.
Matthew Broberg-Moffitt, 38, an immunocompromised writer who lives in Oklahoma City, said few of the young people in his town embraced mask-wearing.
Shortly after the state eased its restrictions on reopening, he passed an upscale pizza place in the town's Plaza District and saw dozens of young people milling about outside, not socially distanced.
"It's very distressing," Broberg-Moffitt said. "It's definitely causing me to lose sleep - and I feel a lot of anger. I'm not an angry person. I was a Buddhist monk for a while. But I'm having a lot of pent-up anger and moments that are almost like rage at how poorly this is being handled."
He continued: “I’m like, ‘how is this even possible?’ ”