Public health departments across Colorado are warning of a dangerous trend: COVID-19 is spreading among young people.
In Boulder, the virus was spread at a number of large gatherings on University Hill. In Eagle County, infections increased after teens hung out in the glitzy Roaring Fork Valley. In Telluride, one get-together exposed as many as 36 young people to the disease.
“A young person is most likely not going to get very ill from COVID-19, although some do,” said Chana Goussetis, a spokeswoman for Boulder County Public Health, which has tracked 181 infections among University of Colorado students. “But the risk is really when they are going to work, when they’re going to the grocery store or they’re walking on the sidewalk and they stop to talk to somebody. Those are the times that the virus can be transmitted to somebody who is older and at more risk of having serious consequences.”
The number of new coronavirus cases in Colorado may have generally slowed even as the state eases restrictions on people’s movement after months of demanding that they stay at home. But those who are now getting the disease have tended to be under 30 and are possibly to blame for a slight uptick in cases reported last week.
“We have seen a modest increase in cases among younger Coloradans over the last few weeks,” said Ian Dickson, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Over the past 25 days, people under 30 accounted for about 40% of Colorado’s coronavirus cases, according to CDPHE. For the 25 days before that, it was about 31%.
The median age of people with confirmed coronavirus infections is hovering at about 32. In March and into mid-April, that median was about 50.
“This increase could be due to a number of factors, so we can’t attribute it to any one thing,” Dickson said. “Testing has become more widely available, so more young people — including people with mild or no symptoms — are getting tested. That alone could account for the increase. It’s also possible that older Coloradans are following public health advice and exercising more caution, reducing their share of the cases.”
The risk of having more young people becoming infected is that they may not realize they have caught coronavirus. Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado’s state epidemiologist, says that while about 40% of those infected may be asymptomatic, that rate is above 50% for younger people.
“Younger individuals are more likely to have asymptomatic infection,” she said at a news conference Wednesday. “I think that reinforces the need for those gatherings (among young people) to be small and for precautions to be taken.”
Gov. Jared Polis said the upcoming July 4 weekend will be an especially important time to stay vigilant. If younger Coloradans aren’t careful, they could be putting not only the general public at risk, but also their loved ones.
“We don’t live in generational isolation,” he said. “People have aunts and uncles and parents and older friends and colleagues.”
In Boulder, a spike in coronavirus cases has been blamed on partying CU students. Goussetis said the majority of the 181 students who have tested positive since June 5 contracted the disease at “large social gatherings.”
And Goussetis says she gets it. It’s tough to stay away from friends during the pandemic. But the reality is parties amid coronavirus are a public health agency’s worst nightmare. A positive test among one attendee can mean hours of tracing work, not to mention the economic impacts of people having to stay away from work because they are sick or in quarantine.
In a worst case scenario, someone may die because of the disease’s spread.
“It hurts all of us,” Goussetis said.
Officials in Boulder have been so alarmed by the increase in cases that they enacted new restrictions on gatherings to prevent further spread and announced plans for stricter enforcement of the state’s 10-person gathering limit.
Additionally, 12 houses — including some belonging to fraternities — have been identified as “chronic violators” of the city’s restrictions. If they continue flout restrictions, the city says it could revoke rental licenses, forcing tenants to vacate the properties.
“We will not allow the lives of our community-at-large to be further jeopardized by poor choices made by a few,” Boulder City Manager Jane Brautigam said in a written statement.
The good news is that young people in Boulder appear to be heeding the warnings. While the county hit a record-high 45 new cases on June 17, on Tuesday there were just three new cases.
In Telluride, a 17-year-old tested positive for COVID-19 after going to a party with roughly three-dozen teenagers on June 12, prompting health officials to issue a letter warning parents about the potential exposure of their children and asking them to talk to their kids about how to prevent the disease’s spread.
“We realize that teenagers are social beings and this pandemic is cramping their style,” Dr. Sharon Grundy, San Miguel County’s medical officer, and Grace Franklin, the county’s public health director, said in the letter.
In the following days, the county announced that a 16-year-old and three 19-year-olds were among seven new positive cases, though not necessarily related to the party.
In Eagle County, public health officials have identified a cluster of 11 new cases among teenagers. The cases are tied to private social gatherings in the Roaring Fork Valley, they say.
County officials initially said some of the infected teens have been unwilling to self-isolate or share information with health investigators that could be used to slow the spread of the virus.
“This is not about personal risk tolerance, this is about making decisions that help protect the community,” Heath Harmon, director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment, said in a statement.
After a few days of increased attention caused by the new cases, however, contact tracing has been easier for Eagle County officials, as the elevated profile of the cluster has made sick individuals more willing to help.
“We don’t want anyone to feel stigmatized for catching highly infectious disease,” Eagle County spokeswoman Kris Widlak said. “This is a pandemic. We just need the help afterward.”
But even with the willingness of individuals to aid in contact tracing, it is inherently difficult to keep track of all the individuals young people come in contact with. Teenagers are more likely to have come in contact with a higher number of people, Widlak said. Furthermore, younger people are more likely to exhibit milder symptoms and not realize they are sick.
“The nature of being young means a lot of time you’ve got more social contacts,” Widlak said.
The Denver-area, too, has seen poor behavior and a rise in infections among younger people.
“Certainly there’s been some of that. Denver has not been immune to that,” said Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. “But we’ve addressed it quickly and continue to respond to those concerns when they come in.”
Ashley Richter, communicable disease epidemiology manager at Tri-County Health Department, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, said that while they haven’t necessarily seen large gatherings causing outbreaks among young people, they are seeing increased infections among people under 30.
“Our data is showing a higher incidence of disease within individuals age 20 to 30,” she said. “We definitely are seeing individuals who are in that younger age group spreading to older individuals and spreading to each other.”
She added: “We’re not in the clear yet. I know the data is showing that for Colorado, cases are trending down. That does not mean that the cases are gone.”