Surge in Covid-19 cases across Europe driven by young people

Young adults are driving surges in Covid-19 cases in Europe. (Kevin Wallis via Flickr)

Surges in Covid-19 cases across Europe are largely due to a rise in infections among young people, with those aged between 20 and 39 accounting for about 40% of new Covid-19 infections in many countries, data from national agencies shows.

In the early months of the pandemic infections were more concentrated among older people, especially in care homes. But as European countries have been going back to normal life after months of lockdown, younger people have been venturing out into bars, clubs and other public spaces, opening the way for new infection clusters.

Sarah, a 32-year-old who works for a non-profit foundation in Paris, said she is living her life as usual. She doesn’t fear the virus because she is “young” and “not at risk,” she said.

“There comes a point where the desire to resume normal life is stronger than the fear of dying,” Sarah added.

But health experts fear that the surge in infections among young people cannot be contained and could spread soon to more vulnerable populations.

“There is a true resurgence in cases in several countries as a result of physical distancing measures being relaxed,” the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said in a statement on Thursday.  

In Germany, data from the Robert Koch Institute shows the 20- to 39-year-old age group now accounts for 37.5% of new coronavirus cases. The average age of those infected overall is 34, the lowest since the start of the pandemic.

German health minister Jens Spahn said the rise among young people is “significant” and it might lead to a second wave hitting the rest of the population.

In the Netherlands, the RIVM health agency estimated that young people account for 41% of new infections. The country is recording an average of just over 600 new cases a day, more than half its total at the peak of the pandemic.

However, the surge has not led to an increase in hospitalizations, intensive care admissions or deaths because “so many cases concern young people,” who generally have milder symptoms, chief epidemiologist Jaap van Dissel said.

In Spain, which has reported an average of 3,400 new cases a day for the past week, figures from the Carlos III health institute show 20- to 29-year-olds represent nearly 22% of new cases, and 30- to 39-year-olds about 15%.

In France, the infection rate among people aged 20 to 29 is now 45 every 100,000 people, over six times the rate in May. The rate has also climbed for the 30- to 39-year-old age group, from 6.1 to 26.5. In the same period, infections among  80- to 89-year-olds were cut in half, while the rate in the over-90 age group fell from 60 to 13.

French health minister Olivier Véran said that “people in more vulnerable groups have doubtless remained more prudent” while “young people tend to pay less attention.”

But according to experts there are other factors that explain the surge in cases among young people, such as testing policies: At the peak of the pandemic, testing in France was confined mostly to the elderly. It has now been hugely expanded to younger generations. 

“Young people – who were simply not being tested back in March and April, but were clearly being infected – are now being picked up,” said French epidemiologist Martin Blachier. Nearly 500 young people are now tested weekly, compared with about 225 in early May.

After months of lockdown and isolation, young people feel the need to socialize again and “are taking advantage of what they’re [currently] allowed to do,” Blachier said.

But the risks are high.

In northern Italy, cousins Cristian Persico, 34 years, and Emiliano Perani, 36, recently died of Covid-19.

“[The tragedy] should have young people think deeply: They are not immune,” said Mario Carminati, Critian’s uncle. “Cristian and Emiliano were very healthy. They had no pre-existing conditions. This shows that young people should take the virus more seriously.”

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