From the crush of college spring breakers flooding Florida’s beaches last week, to the numerous pick up basketball games spotted in New York City parks, it’s clear many young adults feel immune to the global pandemic sickening hundreds of thousands. But they are not.
The anecdotal stories coming out of emergency rooms inundated with coronavirus patients, and the raw data being compiled by government agencies, paint a clear picture - that people of all ages are at risk.
Dr. Catrina Cropano is an emergency medicine physician in New York City. She is 30 years old and has been in isolation for over a week after testing positive for COVID-19. She likely contracted it while treating patients at her hospital.
From her experience on the front lines, she says it is not just the elderly and those with underlying health conditions falling ill.
"We're seeing some very young adults getting really severe disease," she said.
In the CDC’s first report on COVID-19 outcomes among Americans, the picture is similar to reports out of China, in that the highest burden of critical illness and death is among those 85 and older.
Younger adults are getting sick, though. Of the 4,226 cases analyzed, more than 50 percent of the COVID-19 cases were 54 years old and younger. Those, like Cropano, who are healthy, will most likely be fine. 80 percent experience mild symptoms, similar to the common cold or the flu.
Cropano is staying home to manage her illness, which she says was like nothing she’d ever experienced.
"I started out with just some general body aches that then the next day had progressed into a dry cough. The body aches, I would just say, were very notable, really like the worst I've ever felt in my entire life. But then two days after the cough started, that's when the fever developed," said Cropano.
She says while she was treating COVID-19 patients, there were other symptoms they mentioned.
"People are describing loss of taste, loss of smell, which I find to be really interesting as well," she said.
The CDC report, though, says about 20 percent of 20 to 44 year olds had more severe illness and needed hospitalization, and 12 percent of the same age group were admitted to the ICU.
Last week, we toured a new testing facility at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Chief of Ambulatory Care Dr. Andrew Wallach said the public hospital system, too, has been seeing numbers similar to what the CDC has documented.
"A lot of the reports out of China, even out of Italy and parts of Europe, has shown that this had been disproportionately affecting older folks. Here, we've noticed that we are seeing younger folks being affected by this. Now, the elderly are certainly at increased risk, but somewhat surprisingly, we have seen folks in their 40s who are coming down and getting very ill with ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) that basically is a bad pneumonia, requiring ventilation," said Wallach.
ARDS expert Dr. Michelle Gong is chief of critical care at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. During an interview Monday, she, too, mentioned while the majority of critically ill patients are overwhelmingly older with underlying health conditions, "unfortunately, we are admitting young patients in their 20s, 30s to the intensive care unit, and some of them are quite sick with ARDS.”
The CDC found 20 percent of deaths were among those 20 to 64 years old. Most of those deaths were in people 55 to 64, but there were a small number of younger adults that died. What the data shows is that those in their 20s and 30s have a much better chance of surviving severe and critical illness. Italy’s hospital system was quickly overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. A new report highlights that while many needed intensive care, it was older Italians that bore the greatest burden. Nearly 88 percent of deaths there were among those older than 70.
Experts say "flattening the curve" means spreading out the cases and making sure those most likely to die get the best care, which includes access to ventilators. While young adults and children are much less likely to die of COVID-19, they are still vulnerable to illness. Health officials at every level of government say staying home will help limit the number who get sick in the first place, preserving ICU beds for those who need them most to live.
For now, Cropano is simply resting, staying hydrated and taking cough drops. Health officials say what she witnessed at her hospital is just the beginning.
Feeling just a taste of what the new coronavirus can do, she offers her own advice.
"It's a very appropriate feeling to feel scared," said Cropano. "We're just seeing our numbers increase higher and higher and higher again, with some people becoming very sick very, very rapidly. So again, I would just say just be mindful, do as everyone else is saying to do. Wash your hands, don't touch your face and be careful when you're going out. Try to stay home as much as you can."
Photojournalist Frank Posillico contributed to this article.