In the early days of the pandemic, the prevailing notion regarding COVID-19 was that it was a disease that only affected older people. The term “Boomer Remover” became prevalent on the internet, referring to COVID-19 as a disease that killed older individuals. According to Johns Hopkins, in a report from 2020, “[a]t the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports indicated that the disease was mostly affecting older adults, and that young people were more likely to have milder cases of the disease.” According to Dr. Bronwen Lichtenstein in the article “From ‘Coffin Dodger’ to ‘Boomer Remover’: Outbreaks of Ageism in Three Countries With Divergent Approaches to Coronavirus Control, “[t]erms such as ‘boomer remover,’ ‘boomer doomer,’ ‘YOLO grandparents,’ ‘grey shufflers,’ and ‘moldy oldies’ illustrate the degree to older people were denigrated in COVID-19-related postings and (occasionally) news sources analyzed for this brief.”
As 2020 wore on, “According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over the summer, in the United States, people under age 30 accounted for more than 20% of COVID-19 cases and were seen as more likely to transmit the virus than others. This trend has continued into the fall.” This trend continued into 2021 and 2022.
According to the World Health Organization “[o]lder people and younger people can be infected by the COVID-19 virus. Older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus. WHO advises people of all ages to take steps to protect themselves from the virus, for example by following good hand hygiene and good respiratory hygiene.” Much of the focus in the early days of COVID were on deaths, however as time has gone on another concern for younger people is long hauler COVID and long term outcomes. According to epidemiologist Priya Duggal, “[w]e want to raise attention that it’s more than just death—we have people who have symptoms that linger with them for months on end, which can be just as devastating to families and individuals.”
This assessment was shared by medical researcher Alex Welte, PhD. According to Dr. Welte, “Long COVID…[is] not entirely rare.” Welte went on to state that “[diseases] do take their toll…even having a sufficiently mild case [of COVID] doesn’t mean you got off completely lightly and if we are facing a future where people should expect to get COVID twice a year, I think it’s going to exact quite a heavy toll even on the people…this constant infection and reinfection can’t be a good thing.”
Welte noted that “[p]eople of all ages are getting [COVID], it’s there every day,” and with respect to the notion that death is the sole marker by which to measure COVID, Welte stated that “distribution of deaths is a very blunt metric for the impact this [disease] has.”
While COVID-19 continues to evolve, what is clear is that young people are squarely part of this disease process. This was made clear to lung cancer survivor Lavern McDonald, who teaches at the Calhoun School in New York City. She shared a story regarding being in the midst of treatment for lung cancer and the responses of care and understanding she received from her students related to COVID.
Ultimately, as to why it’s important for young people to be vigilant during COVID, lung cancer survivor Lavern McDonald said: “We’re still figuring out the transmission and even when you’re super cautious you can still be exposed, so I think it’s important that we’re still thoughtful about what we’re doing.”
According to Welte, “[y]oung people are at…lower risk of death…but as far as we can tell not at all lower risk of infection, and…transmission…so they are as dynamic a part of the infection network and maybe more so than as older people because if you’re 80 years old you probably don’t meet as many people in the average week as a 30 year old. Younger people are very important from the point of view of transmission…There’s still a very significant problem here.”
McDonald added, “You never know who’s immune-compromised around you and so while you yourself might move through COVID easily, somebody else might have comorbidities that really set them up. It’s been a concern of mine which is why I continue to be uber cautious. I don’t want to interrupt my cycle of care. I’m on a rigid 3-week schedule. I don’t want to miss 3 weeks because that could be pivotal in terms of my care. So I don’t want to have COVID and have to miss a test or infusion or something because it’s important for me to stay on schedule. So that’s why I’m inspired to remain safe and that’s why I prefer to be around people who continue to be deeply observant…I always say [to my students] we keep each other safe, not systems outside of us. We keep each other safe. If we’re all cautious and thoughtful, more of us will be able to make it through this terrible moment together.”