How Younger People Are Driving NC’s Coronavirus Resurgence

Young people play a big part in NC's spike in coronavirus cases, a NC expert said Wednesday. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, File)

By Michael McElroy

June 30, 2020

People between the ages of 25 and 49, who account for about 45% of NC’s coronavirus cases, have not taken the virus seriously enough, expert says.

Coronavirus is surging in North Carolina, and young people are a big reason why, a Duke professor and former commissioner at the US Food and Drug Administration told reporters Wednesday. 

“A lot of people, especially younger people think I’m not going to get that sick or there’s not much of a likelihood that I’ll end up in the hospital or dead,” said Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy

That is not a great view in a pandemic, McClellan said. 

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According to officials with the NC Department of Health and Human Services, people between the ages of 25 to 49 account for nearly half of the state’s 64,670 cases thus far.

And, although they count for only about 5% of NC’s 1,343 deaths, the danger to more vulnerable populations in the older age brackets is obvious. Of the state’s deaths, 80% were among North Carolinians 65 or older.

Source: NC DHHS

McClellan said that if people simply adhered to social distancing rules, wore masks, washed their hands, and quarantined themselves when symptomatic or exposed to COVID cases, the nation could make huge strides in the fight against the disease. 

But people are not doing these things as much as they need to and the cases are surging, not retreating. 

RELATED: Some NC Sheriffs Are Refusing To Enforce Gov. Cooper’s Mask Order

McClellan compared the community danger to smoking.

“Think about secondhand smoke, where you might be fine if you’re by yourself. But it isn’t fine if you’re around others.”

North Carolina’s spike in novel coronavirus cases has caused state officials to walk back plans to ease social distancing restrictions. Indeed, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a mandatory mask order for public spaces last week, and delayed plans to loosen restrictions by a matter of weeks.

Cooper’s critics in the NC General Assembly, as well as his opponent in this fall’s election, bristled at the governor’s plans, although polling generally suggests most North Carolinians support a cautious approach to reopening.

Meanwhile, as Cardinal & Pine reported last week, states that imposed mask orders recorded a drop in new cases, particularly in comparison to states that did not. 

Some of the factors driving this complacency reflect some genuinely good news, he said. 

Since younger people are making up a larger part of the total cases, there are fewer hospitalizations among them, he said. And, driven in part by improvements in treating the most seriously ill, there are “better outcomes” among those new cases who do require hospital stays. 

“That’s a reflection of more of the cases being in younger individuals,” he said. “Because, so far at least, young patients have not been getting as sick or dying at the same rate as older patients and those with pre-existing conditions.”

These figures, however, have made many young people dangerously complacent.

Young patients can still come down with serious cases and the possibilities of death are still very real, he said. COVID-19 remains “a direct health risk,” to young people.

McClellan, echoing increasing calls from national healthcare officials, that that it is urgent that people “take a step back,” and restore the more stringent distancing polices enacted early in the pandemic.

“That’s especially important with July 4 coming up,” he said.

The resistance to wearing masks and to keeping apart is something bigger, something McClellan attributed in part to weariness of time already served in isolation. A few weeks can seem like an eternity, especially to young people.

“For younger Americans, I think it’s understandably been challenging to be isolated for so long,” he said. “It’s an important period in their lives,” he acknowledged, and they are eager to get back out among their friends.

But, the stakes are too high, and it’s vital that the younger population see that some things are bigger than they are.

“We’ve clearly seen that your behavior is just not about you and we’re all in this together,” McClellan said.

It would not take that much time for these efforts to start working again. And McClellan expects the US will have better treatments in a matter of months. 

“It’s really hard to get your arms around, but younger people who don’t look like me, they probably need to be hearing this, not just from government officials, but from people who are in their circles. Their influencers.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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