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As COVID-19 is a brand-new disease, there are still many unknowns, including how fatal it is, and who is most likely to be affected.
Initial reports indicated that the disease is most deadly to individuals over 85, with a 10% to 17% fatality rate among this group. The percentage of fatal cases decreased with the age of patients, with a fatality rate of under 1% for people ages 20-54. This may have led to the belief among people in this age group that they would not be severely affected by COVID-19, causing them to disregard instructions for social distancing and self-quarantining.
Throughout the month of March, even as COVID-19 cases increased in the U.S. and around the world, people, many of them young, continued to gather on beaches and in tourist hot spots, despite repeated warnings not to congregate in close quarters.
Even now, with most public gathering spaces like restaurants, bars, and shopping malls closed, 11.6% of survey respondents ages 18-34 said they continue to go about their regular routines, including engaging in activities that put them in close proximity to others. Comparatively, 8.9% of individuals ages 35-54 and 7.6% of individuals over age 55 have not changed their routines whatsoever.
However, new data shows that COVID-19 infections can be severe or fatal even in younger populations. Increased testing capacity has provided a more complete picture of who is infected with COVID-19, and factors including quality of care and underlying health conditions can affect the severity of the illness among all age groups.
As hospitals reach capacity and supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other critical care materials run low, it is increasingly important for people of all ages to avoid contracting COVID-19, to flatten the curve and avoid overwhelming healthcare systems.
Self-quarantining measures among Millennials and Generation Z are not just about protecting themselves against COVID-19, but also preventing the spread of COVID-19 to more at-risk populations. Top health officials have pinpointed these groups as key players in slowing the spread of COVID-19, while disseminating information to older individuals, many of whom have also been reluctant to follow self-quarantine recommendations.
It appears that at least some members of these age groups have gotten the message about self-quarantining. More than 31% of survey respondents ages 18-34 are practicing complete self-quarantine, meaning they are not having any contact with anyone outside their own home. Only 15.2% of the most vulnerable population, those ages 55 and older, are doing likewise. However, this age group had the highest number of respondents who were only leaving home for necessities like work and groceries (72.2%).
Among all three age brackets, individuals ages 35-54 were the least likely to practice complete self-quarantine, with only 14.6% of respondents saying they had zero contact with anyone outside their home.
As challenging and frustrating as staying at home and limiting contact with others can be, this is the best way to prevent spreading the disease to others, including those who are most at-risk.
Some risk factors, like age, may be obvious, leading people to believe that they only need to avoid older individuals. However, invisible risk factors like pre-existing health conditions or immunodeficiencies are not limited to older adults. These conditions can make individuals more susceptible to COVID-19, and make the illness far more severe and life-threatening if they get sick.
While it’s important for everyone to practice physical and social distancing, and take precautions if they must leave their home for essential tasks like work or grocery shopping, it is critical for individuals to stay at home and self-quarantine if:
The incubation period for COVID-19 is about 14 days. During that time, infected individuals can spread the disease, even if they are not showing any symptoms. Based on available data, it can take anywhere from two to six weeks to recover, depending on the severity of the illness. It’s believed that patients can still spread the disease while they are ill or in recovery. Therefore, if you are sick, it is essential that you avoid contact with others from the time you become ill to when you are fully recovered.
Despite this, a significant number of survey respondents ages 18-34 said that even if they had symptoms of COVID-19, they would not completely self-quarantine. 17% said they would still leave home for essential tasks, while 5.7% said they would do non-essential activities, and 8.4% said they would not alter their daily routines at all.
Comparatively, 75% of respondents ages 35-54 said they would completely self-quarantine if they had COVID-19 symptoms, as would 85.6% of respondents age 55 and older.
These numbers are alarming, given what is known about the contagiousness of the disease. Anyone who displays symptoms of COVID-19 should self-isolate except to get medical care, and follow protocols for getting tested.
Individuals who confirm that they have COVID-19 through testing may be more willing to change their behaviors than those who only suspect they are ill.
However, the number of survey respondents who attempted to get tested is low across all age brackets. Only 0.7% of respondents age 55 and older have been tested, while another 1.3% attempted unsuccessfully to get tested. Meanwhile, for respondents ages 35-54, 3.5% were tested, while another 4.5% tried to get tested. Among respondents ages 18-34, 7.1% were tested, and another 10.5% tried to get tested.
Definitively diagnosing those infected is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19. As the majority of people would completely self-quarantine if they had a confirmed case of COVID-19, a diagnosis is likely more effective in altering people’s behavior than recommending they self-isolate if they suspect they are sick.
Beyond adjusting individual behavior to prevent further spread of COVID-19, a robust picture of who is or was infected will help public health officials understand how the disease spreads, who can safely return to normal daily activities, and how to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
If individuals suspect they are infected with COVID-19, they should seek testing from their primary healthcare provider, or state or local public health department. Newly developed testing methods should help increase testing availability in the coming weeks.