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Rising infections in younger people fuel California’s new coronavirus spike

People wear face coverings while walking under neon signs at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles
People wear face coverings at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The surge in new coronavirus cases that has alarmed health officials and put renewed strain on hospitals appears to be driven at least in part by increases in younger Californians falling sick.

As of Wednesday, 56% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 were 18 to 49 years old, though they account for only 43.5% of the state’s population. That figure has risen consistently throughout the outbreak but surged sharply in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, people older than 65, who used to make up nearly a quarter of those testing positive for COVID-19, now account for fewer than 15% of positive coronavirus tests, roughly in line with their proportion of the population.

The changes may be due in part to expanded testing. Early in the outbreak, it was nearly impossible to get a test for the coronavirus unless one was sick enough to be hospitalized. Because young people are less likely to get severely ill with COVID-19, they may not have been captured in testing numbers.

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Officials, however, warn that although testing criteria may be a factor, they do not fully explain the trends. The virus appears to simply be spreading more in younger age groups now, they say.
The increasingly young demographics of coronavirus infections are being seen in California and beyond.

In L.A. County, 40% of coronavirus cases are occurring among those 18 to 40 years old.

That matches the experience in Japan, where a study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the people probably spreading the coronavirus in more than 60 clusters were mostly young adults, ages 20 to 39. Most did not show symptoms when they transmitted the virus, and almost none had a cough.

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Transmission probably happened at such places as restaurants, bars, workplaces, healthcare facilities, gyms and music events. Many clusters were associated with heavy breathing in proximity to others, such as people singing at karaoke parties, cheering at a concert, chatting in a bar or exercising at a gym.
An increasingly alarmed Gov. Gavin Newsom warned Californians on Thursday about the growing spread of the coronavirus as the state again reported increases in hospitalizations.

The governor’s news conference marks the third time this week that he has urged Californians to take more precautions as he disclosed troubling new highs.

“I cannot impress upon people more the importance at this critical juncture, when we are experiencing an increase in cases that we have not experienced in the past, to take seriously this moment,” Newsom said. “If we do, we can mitigate and we can bend, and we ultimately can rebound and become more resilient still in the future.”

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Newsom said Thursday that the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 had jumped 32% in the last two weeks, to 4,240. That is double the two-week increase of 16% he reported Monday.

The governor has pleaded with residents to wear masks and maintain a physical distance of six feet from one another. He advised those older than 65 and those with chronic medical conditions to remain at home.

But beyond telling Californians to heed the state’s mask requirement, the governor has not reinstated any of the restrictions he began easing in early May or demanded that counties experiencing surges close businesses again.

Fifteen counties in California have reported an elevated transmission of the disease, increased hospitalizations or a limited hospital capacity that exceed the state’s guidelines: Contra Costa, Fresno, Imperial, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Stanislaus, Tulare and Ventura.

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Newsom said Thursday that he would consider “toggling back” and reinstating restrictions if healthcare needs began to exceed capacity.

“When our system cannot absorb, when there’s a capacity consideration or limitation, that’s when we obviously have alarm bells,” he said.

The state reported more than 5,000 new cases Thursday, according to The Times’ coronavirus tracker — pushing its cumulative total past 200,000. More than 5,800 Californians have died of COVID-19, including almost 100 on Thursday.

“While you may be done with COVID, COVID is not done with us,” Garcetti said.

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Cumulative case counts are only part of the equation. Health officials have said other metrics — such as the number of patients who require hospitalization and the positivity rate — help paint a more complete picture of the coronavirus outbreak.

But there are warning signs there, too.

There have been nearly 90,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and more than 3,200 deaths in L.A. County.

Riverside County has seen an average daily increase of 85 patients; San Bernardino County, 70; Ventura County, 33; and Orange County, 32, according to a Times analysis.

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And L.A. County has seen its daily number of hospitalizations tick up recently — something Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer called “extraordinarily worrisome.”

Orange County also reported 26 COVID-19 deaths Wednesday — its most in a single day. Officials noted that not all of those people died on that particular day. The recently reported fatalities date as far back as May 9, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.


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