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The Life Young People Save With Social Distancing Could be Their Own

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is causing increasing illness and death around the world, yet many young adults have resisted strict social distancing measures. Students on extended spring breaks are out and about, and young professionals who now work remotely by day still gather for parties at night.

Too many people in their 20s and 30s have wrongly come to believe that COVID-19 “affects only old people” and is “just another flu.” This is not true.

If young people do not take the necessary measures now, this disease will take many more lives — and nearly every young person will lose family members and friends. COVID-19 is definitely not just a flu. We need to treat it with the respect it deserves as the most serious pandemic of our lifetime.

Social distancing is necessary across all aspects of life. College students, many now home for the rest of the school year, need to practice social distancing. If young people work from home all day and then go to a crowded dinner gathering in the evening, not much has been accomplished in terms of containing the virus.

What’s more, they are putting themselves at risk. COVID-19 is consistently worse than the seasonal influenza at all ages except for little children. An adult at any age is approximately 5-10 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than from the seasonal influenza, and similarly more likely to be hospitalized or sustain permanent lung damage from a severe case. Although it is true that the absolute for young adults is relatively low, this is no disease to take lightly.

Another way to think about it: Getting infected with COVID-19 will affect a person as if that person were 20 years older and had been infected with the seasonal flu. People in their 30s might experience COVID-19 as if it were a flu they caught in their 50s.

The situation is exacerbated because we are not doing nearly enough testing. At a minimum, we should be testing everybody who has suspicious symptoms and everybody who has had recent contact with somebody with symptoms or who has tested positive. Instead, we’re reading reports that only the rich and famous are getting tested. With insufficient testing, strict, widespread social distancing is the only option we have to get this pandemic under control. We have to assume that any person we interact with may be infectious. In a nutshell, the less we test, the more we have to self-quarantine.

Many parts of the country still have a chance to learn from what has happened in China, in South Korea, and in Italy, as we assess which measures have and have not helped. China and Italy imposed strict lockdowns. By contrast, South Korea employed mass testing, and it canceled large gatherings and closed educational institutions and public spaces, but it never had to place its citizens under house arrest.

China and South Korea have brought their COVID-19 epidemics under control, and Italy, too, seems to be slowly taking a turn for the better. These examples suggest that there are two approaches to containing the virus: Either a community practices both social distancing and widespread testing early, as did South Korea, or eventually things deteriorate to a point where a strict lockdown and house arrest are the only options, as happened in Wuhan, China, and in Italy.

If we do not manage to follow the South Korean example, we will eventually have no option but to follow the Chinese and Italian examples.

Young people have the power to help contain the pandemic by keeping interactions with people outside their immediate families or households to the absolute minimum.

This means no parties, no going out with friends, no kid play dates, no movies, no concerts, no games. It means going shopping only for the essentials like food, toiletries and medication, and going less frequently. When leaving the house for a walk, it means keeping a distance from other people, and preferably just going where nobody else is.

As more places embark on strict protocols for social distancing, it is critical that young and old alike participate fully in social distancing now.

Claus O. Wilke is the chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, Amarillo Globe News, Austin American Statesman, Abilene Reporter News, Corpus Christi Caller Times and the San Antonio Express News.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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