AP Photo/LM Otero Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, a worker restocks chicken in the meat product section at a grocery store in Dallas, Wednesday, April 29, 2020.
AP Photo/LM Otero

The number of cases among young adults has exploded since governors across the country ignored the advice of public health officials and reopened businesses, restaurants, and bars beginning in mid-May.

Four months into the coronavirus pandemic, the number of cases and hospitalizations is spiking in more than two dozen states, driven by an alarming number of young people falling ill with COVID-19.

The U.S. recorded 36,880 new cases on Wednesday—the highest number of cases recorded on a single day since the pandemic began—and 29 states are seeing their number of cases rise, driven by federal and state governments’ hasty decisions to reopen. 

Despite near-daily assurances from the Trump administration that things are under control, the data indicates they very much are not. Most alarmingly, the number of cases among young adults has exploded since governors across the country ignored the advice of public health officials and reopened businesses, restaurants, and bars beginning in May.

These reopenings have had extraordinary consequences. In Oxford, Mississippi, summer fraternity parties sparked outbreaks. In Oklahoma City, church activities, fitness classes, weddings, and funerals seeded infections among people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. In Iowa college towns, surges followed the reopening of bars. A cluster of hangouts near Louisiana State University led to at least 100 customers and employees testing positive. In East Lansing, Michigan, an outbreak tied to a brew pub spread to 25 people ages 18 to 23.

There and in states like Florida, Texas, and Arizona, young people have started going out again, many without masks, in what health experts see as irresponsible behavior. 

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“The virus hasn’t changed. We have changed our behaviors,” Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the Associated Press. “Younger people are more likely to be out and taking a risk.”

A Closer Look at the Numbers

Florida on Wednesday reported a new daily record of 5,508 cases. Young people ages 15 to 34 now make up 31% of all cases in the state, up from 25% in early June. Last week, more than 8,000 new cases were reported in that age group, compared with about 2,000 among people 55 to 64 years old. Texas also set a new daily record on Wednesday, with 5,551 new cases—a 94% increase since June 1—while Arizona set a new record for hospitalizations, with the state reporting 2,270 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, up from 2,136 reported Tuesday.

Like Florida, both states have also seen dramatic surges in the number of young people falling sick with the virus.

Experts say the rising numbers cannot be explained away as simply the result of more testing, as the Trump administration has tried to argue, and public officials are worried that these young people may further spread the virus to their older family members. “People between the ages 18 and 50 don’t live in some sort of a bubble,” said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt. “They are the children and grandchildren of vulnerable people. They may be standing next to you at a wedding. They might be serving you a meal in a restaurant.”

The virus has devastated older Americans; eight out of 10 deaths in the U.S. have been in people 65 and older. During the early months of the pandemic, elderly people were far more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than younger Americans, but—according to CDC data—as soon as states began reopening in mid-to-late May, that began to shift. People 18 to 49 years old became the age bracket most likely to be diagnosed with the disease. For the week ending June 7, there were 43 new cases per 100,000 people in that age bracket, compared with 28 cases per 100,000 people over 65.

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The shift toward younger people getting sick may in part explain why the fatality rate has not increased while case rates have surged. In fact, the death rate has actually dropped in recent weeks, but young people are still experiencing excruciating symptoms. 

“My chest and my body hurt. Almost like I’d gotten in a car accident,” said Emily Ellington, 25, of suburban Austin, Texas, who tested positive about six weeks after the state began reopening.

DeSantis Doubles Down

In Florida, where many restaurants and bars reopened in early May, 32-year-old Kristen Kowall of Clearwater dined out with her fiancé in early June. Like others in the restaurant, she didn’t wear a mask. She tested positive over the weekend. “I just feel really groggy and tired. It hurts to walk. Especially my ankles and knees, it feels like my bones are going to fall apart,” she told the AP. “I definitely would advise people from going out. It’s not worth it.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he has no plans to reimpose restrictions, arguing that many of the newly infected are young and otherwise healthy, but younger people still face the possibility of severe infection and death. In the past week, two 17-year-olds in Florida died of the virus.

Amid the rising caseload, some Florida cities and counties are now requiring people to wear masks before entering businesses, but Florida Democrats have called on DeSantis to go further and issue a statewide order mandating people wear masks when they’re outside their homes.

Virus Outbreak Florida
Members of Orange County Fire Rescue pack personal protective equipment (PPE) items including disposable face masks, reusable masks and hand sanitizer in bags to be handed out to small businesses, Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

“Floridians need strong, universal guidance from you during this time of uncertainty,” the state’s congressional Democrats wrote in a letter to the Republican governor. “We need to hear from you, clearly and unequivocally, that wearing a mask in public is a requirement.”

Even as efficacy of masks has become increasingly clear in recent weeks—studies have found they reduce transmission of COVID-19 by as much as 85%—the relentless mockery of the idea by President Trump and the reluctance of many Republican governors to mandate mask-wearing appears to have helped seed the growing outbreaks. 

The ‘Massive Outbreak’ in Texas

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who aggressively pushed to reopen the state in May and has similarly refused to mandate the wearing of masks, is also under intense scrutiny as the number of cases is skyrocketing in his state. Abbott acknowledged the worsening crisis on Wednesday. “There is a massive outbreak of COVID-19 across the state of Texas,” Abbott said in an interview with KFDA-TV.

The infection rate in Texas has doubled since late May and the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has also more than doubled in that time, reaching 4,389 on Wednesday. The situation is particularly dire in Harris County—which includes Houston—where the number of patients hospitalized with the virus has nearly tripled since May 31. Houston-area intensive care units are now at 97% capacity, and are on track to exceed capacity on Thursday. Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, the largest pediatric hospital in the nation, said Tuesday that it would admit adult patients across its campuses to free up more beds in the Houston area. 

Texas healthcare workers
Healthcare workers wait under a tent at a United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 testing site Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Faced with the rising number of cases and hospitalizations, Abbot on Thursday halted the state’s reopening and issued an executive order suspending elective surgeries in four of the state’s biggest counties, including Harris County.

“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses. This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business,” Abbott said in a statement. “I ask all Texans to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask, washing their hands regularly, and socially distancing from others.”

The governor previously encouraged Texans to stay home and wear masks, calling the use of masks or face coverings in public an “effective way for Texans to protect themselves and others from the transmission of COVID-19.” He is also now allowing local officials to impose restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people, down from the previous limit of 500 people or more. 

But Abbott has declined to shut down the state or order masks to be worn, and said on Monday that “closing down Texas again will always be the last option.” Abbott also initially blocked local governments from superseding his order for weeks, until nine big city mayors in Texas publicly called on him to allow them the flexibility to mandate masks at businesses. Abbott, however, is still refusing to allow local officials to enforce the mandate with fines. 

Texas Democrats and several media figures put Abbott on blast this week for what they described as poor leadership.

Other Republican governors are also standing firm, despite worsening outbreaks. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he had “no plans to shut down Utah’s economy” despite a dire warning from the state’s top epidemiologist that the “only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown.”

Meanwhile, in Blue States

In contrast, some Democratic governors are taking decisive action to try to contain the new outbreaks. Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina issued a statewide indoor and outdoor mask mandate for his state on Wednesday. “This is something that we need to do to slow the spread and move the economy forward, which is something that we all want to do,” Cooper said. 

Cooper and his top health official, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, have strongly urged the state’s residents to wear masks from the early days of the pandemic, but turned those strong suggestions into a mandate after the state reported more than 1,700 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the second-highest single day tally since the pandemic began. 

Cooper also announced he would hold off on moving into the next stage of a three-part reopening phase, effectively keeping bars, personal fitness centers, playgrounds, museums, and movie theaters shuttered for at least the next three weeks.

Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas also said the state’s rising caseload indicated it was “not ready” to continue lifting restrictions, and the governors of Louisiana and Oregon, both of whom are Democrats, also hit pause on easing restrictions on businesses and public places. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, meanwhile, issued an order on Tuesday requiring most people to wear face coverings in public.

Warnings Went Unheeded

Public health officials spent much of April and May warning against reopening too quickly. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in May that if states and cities reopened too early without following federal public health guidelines, they could cause “little spikes that then turn into outbreaks.” 

“The consequences could be really serious,” he added. 

His concerns were echoed by Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who warned that “we are not out of the woods yet.”

But Fauci, Redfield, and local health officials were overruled by President Trump and governors across the nation, as all 50 states lifted restrictions in some capacity. Fauci is now warning that the next few weeks are critical to slowing down the surge. Fauci told lawmakers on Wednesday that he understands the desire to get back to life as usual, but said that has “to be a gradual step-by-step process and not throwing caution to the wind,” and that people need to take necessary precautions. 

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“Plan A, don’t go in a crowd. Plan B, if you do, make sure you wear a mask,” Fauci said.

Fauci also warned that young adults need to take the virus more seriously. If people say, “’I’m young, I’m healthy, who cares’ — you should care, not only for yourself but for the impact you might have” on sickening someone more vulnerable, Fauci said.

Whether public officials and citizens listen remains to be seen. They didn’t heed his past advice about reopening, which included a warning about the possibility of not just public health consequences, but worse economic ones as well.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, which in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” Fauci said in May. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with news of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to pause the state’s reopening process.