It hasn’t been easy, but unlike the majority of her friends, 24-year-old Kelsey McGrath has been careful to keep her distance throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can’t be the one to come home with COVID,” the longtime Newmarket resident said. “I’ve been really, really careful.
“But 90 per cent of my friends are not,” she acknowledged.
She has stayed home and only gone out for essentials, and practises physical distancing because she shares a household with a person in a higher risk category for COVID-19 complications, she said.
“Most of my friends kept hanging out, and definitely in the last two weeks, even more so. ‘I’m done with this, I’m over this’ is the attitude.”
“To be honest, if I was living alone, I might be feeling the same way,” said McGrath, who is missing her friends and active social life, and the job that was helping to pay for her student loans, car and rent.
In regions across the province, public health data is showing COVID-19 cases have been growing among young people, but the reason isn't immediately clear, despite plenty of anecdotal evidence that many aren't following the rules around social gatherings and physical distancing.
According to Public Health Ontario data, people in their 20s accounted for 31.5 per cent of new COVID-19 cases across the province on June 7, compared with 12.6 per cent on April 26.
Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, said in a briefing this week that the opening up of testing to people with less severe or no symptoms could be having an impact on numbers, but the province doesn’t currently have data on exposure sites by age group.
As of June 9, 20- to 34-year-olds officially became the age group with the most COVID-19 cases in York Region, after steadily increasing in recent weeks, while the number of cases for the age 80 and over group slowed when long-term care outbreaks closed.
According to York Region Public Health, nearly 20 per cent of new cases were people between the ages of 20 and 34.
Of the 515 cases — which make up 19 per cent of the region’s 2,712 cases as of June 10 — 233 (45 per cent), were acquired through close contact, and 104 cases (20 per cent) are community transmission. Twenty-fives cases are workplace exposures. Currently, 112 cases are active.
The five-to-19 age group continues to creep upward, numbering 92 cases today, of which 83 per cent are close contact and six per cent are local transmission.
In Vaughan, where there have been virulent long-term care outbreaks, the largest number of cases (22 per cent) are 80 and older. However, that’s followed by 20 to 34-olds (19 per cent), accounting for 228 of the city’s 1,193 cases — almost half of them in Woodbridge.
Close contact accounts for more than half of the exposures, 121 cases, and local transmission for 43 cases.
There have been two COVID-19 related deaths in the 20 to 34 age group in York Region, including a 23-year-old Vaughan man who died April 23 of a close contact case, and a Markham resident due to outbreak exposure.
Five- to 19-year-olds account for four per cent of Vaughan’s cases, numbering 53, with 48 cases acquired through close contact.
It may be a cautionary tale for other communities in the region, particularly as the guidelines for social gatherings bump up from five to 10 as of tomorrow, Friday, June 12.
In Newmarket, 20- to 34-year-olds make up 12 per cent of the town’s 123 cases, and five- to 19-year-olds account for three per cent of cases.
Of the 27 cases in the 20 to 34 group, five were acquired by close contact and five by community transmission, with 12 acquired by outbreak and two by travel. Most of the cases, 68 per cent, are females, and nine cases are active.
Several weeks ago, Town of Newmarket bylaw officers began to note “a slight shift” in attitude as more teenagers were observed meeting in groups larger than five and not staying at least six feet, or two meters apart, according to Flynn Scott, regulatory services manager.
It appears some teens are “becoming restless with the rules and regulations,” he said.
Last weekend, calls about young people hanging out in groups topped complaints made to the town.
Young people are not immune to the potentially dangerous effects of COVID-19, York Region medical officer of health Dr. Karim Kurji said in a York Region Public Health update video June 1, and it’s not yet known what the long-term impact of COVID-19 could be on young people.
“The long-term effects of COVID-19 in young people are unknown — remember that it affects the heart, the kidneys and the lungs — but we do know that 13 per cent of other viral infections result in long-term effects of one sort or the other,” he said.
One in four of the COVID-19 cases in Canada are aged 20 to 39, and account for seven per cent of hospitalizations in Canada, and eight per cent of patients admitted to ICU, he added.
“Young people, therefore, are not immune from the devastating effects of COVID-19,” he said “Hospitalizations tend to be long and ICU stays can stretch for weeks.”
Of equal importance is the concern that young people who can easily recover from COVID-19 can infect others who may not be able to fight the potentially deadly virus as easily.
“When young people get infected, they bring these infections into their families,” Kurji said. “Children are just as likely to acquire these infections from the young people as are adults. And remember, the consequences to the elderly folks in the family are devastating.”
For McGrath, who returned to work as an assistant manager at a Main Street restaurant last month, the need for caution remains clear.
“I’m seeing all these elderly people with masks, gloves and face shields on, they’re so scared. If I get it, I’ll get over it, but I don’t want to be the one that could give it to them, so I’m still being really careful,” she said.
She continues to maintain a physical distance when visiting her parents, who are both essential workers, which “has been really tough,” she said.
While some of her friends have received tickets for not practising social distancing, she added, she has only seen them at occasions like birthdays when she can maintain physical distance or stay in her car in a drive-by.
“It has made me so much more grateful for my friendships,” she said, adding that pandemic isolation has revealed the “true friends” who have made the effort to connect and stay in touch.
“That has made it a bit better,” she said. “But trust me, the second that patios are open, I’ll be there. I’m so ready to go out.”