Over the past few months, we’ve celebrated the vaccination of over 100 million Americans against COVID-19. At the same time, we’ve seen worrying indications that young adults like ourselves are letting down our guard too early. In fact, the latest surge in COVID-19 cases is being driven largely by younger people; concerningly, hospital wards in states like Pennsylvania and Florida are starting to see younger patients with COVID-19. While this doesn’t mirror the more severe winter surges, it is drawing alarm from some public health experts who say it may drive the spread of new COVID-19 variants.
As healthy, young adults, we can relate to the barriers the pandemic has placed on our normal lives. It’s been isolating without normal social interactions with our classmates and friends: going to a movie theater together, celebrating holidays at a friend’s house, or simply catching up before an 8 am lecture. This is not to mention the many young adults who are struggling to support themselves or their families or the increased number of people reporting anxiety or depression. We’re more than eager to return to some semblance of normalcy.
But an important realization is that our fight is not over. States are starting to open COVID-19 vaccinations to the general population — including healthy, young adults aged 18-30 — but many people our age are still unvaccinated. More importantly, even once vaccinated, we must continue to social distance and wear masks. Though the CDC has relaxed its guidelines on gathering indoors, there’s growing, but limited data on whether the vaccine prevents transmission to unvaccinated individuals and on efficacy against COVID-19 variants. Only when we achieve herd immunity, which some experts estimate will happen when between 75 to 85 percent of the U.S. population is vaccinated, will a return to normal be feasible.
As medical students, we’re also positioned at the intersection between our young adult peers and health care workers. Like our friends, we’re increasingly tired of the continued sacrifices and isolation. At the same time, we’ve spoken with exhausted nurses and social workers, faculty struggling to look after children, and patients worried about how the pandemic is affecting their lives. Knowing the immense strain that COVID-19 has placed on our health systems and our desire to avoid another wave of cases is exactly why we’re asking our young adult peers to join us in continuing to follow COVID guidelines.
While states like Minnesota and New Mexico have started reporting days without deaths due to COVID-19, there are still some challenges ahead. Vaccinations provide an important safeguard and have been ramping up, but the rise of new, more contagious variants means we must be extra vigilant. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, recently warned that relaxing mitigation measures like mask-wearing and social distancing too quickly might expose us to an avoidable surge due to these variants. Even without another surge in cases, it’s likely that we’ll continue seeing a plateau in cases.
Why does this matter — don’t younger adults experience fewer symptoms from COVID-19? Contrary to popular belief, as young adults, we haven’t been invincible to the effects of COVID. A December article in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that adults aged 25-44 are dying at historic rates from COVID-19; currently, it is one of the leading causes of death for young adults. And that’s not to mention the number of young adults who have required intensive care or who may suffer from the long-term effects of COVID. The risks of contracting COVID-19 are simply not worth it, let alone the potential of passing it on to others.
As vaccine supply increases and becomes available to all adults in the coming weeks, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The next few months, however, will need to mirror the last few. We’ll continue making tough decisions about how to safely hang out with friends and family and will need to get vaccinated once it’s available to us.
But with just a little more effort, we can see this through together. The past year has highlighted a number of negative headlines about young adults who ignored COVID-19 restrictions by attending large gatherings and crowded bars. The next few months are our chance to rewrite those headlines — for the right reasons.
Jesper Ke and Matt Alexander are medical students.
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