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New Mexico virus cases begin to skew younger

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Younger adults make up an increasing share of New Mexico’s coronavirus infections, a puzzling new challenge for state health officials trying to contain the disease.

About 45% of the state’s COVID-19 cases in a recent two-week period were adults in their 20s and 30s, up from about 32% of all cases through mid-May.

And the share of cases each week involving individuals under 30 has climbed from about 19% in mid-March to 44% this month, according to state data.

Ian Martinez, student government president at Santa Fe Community College, said many people his age are missing their friends and interacting with others, especially at a time of year when students come home from college.

“We’ve never encountered anything like this,” Martinez, 20, said Tuesday. “The duration of this virus – it’s longer than expected. I think a lot of people are just fed up.”

But he said he is taking the virus seriously and encouraging others to do the same. He wears a mask when leaving the house and works from home.

The younger trend in New Mexico’s coronavirus cases presents a new challenge for state health officials. They have repeatedly warned about the fatality rate for older adults and individuals with other medical conditions.

Now they’re taking a closer look at how to get their public health message to younger adults.

Nancy Wright, a Las Vegas pediatrician and president of the New Mexico Medical Society, said adolescents and young adults often feel invincible – a barrier for all kinds of public health strategies. Scare tactics, she said, aren’t likely to get through.

But Wright said she hopes young New Mexicans understand that they could carry the disease to someone who’s more vulnerable – an older brother with a disability, a grandparent or a mom with diabetes – even if they have no symptoms.

“Look, this is about the people around you, even if you get better,” Wright said of potential messages.

Long-lasting damage

In a press briefing last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and health officials highlighted the increasing share of younger cases and warned that no one is safe from the disease. They said 45% of the cases over the previous two weeks were in people in their 20s and 30s – a substantially higher percentage than earlier in the year.

COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of four people in their 30s over the past six days.

But Lujan Grisham and health officials said the disease may inflict long-lasting damage even for younger patients who survive.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase, a physician, said there’s emerging evidence that COVID infections can affect male fertility and damage male sex organs in some patients, citing an April article in Nature Reviews Urology. He also noted that the first COVID-related lung transplant was performed on a patient in her 20s.

Scrase said Tuesday that the young people in New Mexico who have contracted COVID-19 – the disease caused by the novel coronavirus – are less likely to require hospitalization than older folks.

About 59% of New Mexico’s coronavirus deaths are people 70 or older.

But that’s no reason, Scrase said, for young people to let their guard down.

Strokes and lung damage are among the potential long-term complications of a coronavirus infection, Scrase said, regardless of the patient’s age.

“COVID is really serious business, no matter how young or old you are,” he said.

State health officials reported Tuesday that testing had confirmed 227 new cases of COVID-19, covering people of all ages. They said three more people had died – two of them in their 30s – pushing the statewide death toll to 551 residents. Two adults in their 30s were also among the deaths announced Thursday last week.

Three of the four recent deaths – of people in their 30s – involved individuals with underlying medical conditions. All of them were residents in the northwestern part of the state – two in McKinley County and two in San Juan County.

Mixed messages

State health officials, scientists and medical executives are researching what’s driving the younger trend in New Mexico’s cases.

“The answer is, we don’t really know,” Scrase said. “We have to assume it’s related to more mobility, more contacts, more interactions that spread the disease. The virus hasn’t really changed in this time period.”

Bars have remained closed under New Mexico’s public health restrictions.

Martinez, the Santa Fe college student, said young people are hearing mixed messages about what’s safe for them to do. And they miss interacting with others at concerts and social events.

Martinez said he and his friends are taking precautions to stay safe – wearing masks and meeting outdoors, on the rare occasion they do get together.

“It’s definitely been an adjustment,” he said.

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