As coronavirus spreads to people under 40, it’s making them sicker — and for longer — than once thought

For the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, health and government officials assured the public that young people were at little or no risk of falling seriously ill from COVID-19. But many young people who have contracted the virus tell a very different story, one that should serve as a warning to young adults in the Southern and Western states where infections are surging.

“For younger people who think they don’t need to worry and who haven’t followed guidelines, think again,” Jade Townsend, 22, told Yahoo News in a Facebook message. “It’s had a major impact on my life these past few months and continues to have an impact.”

A worker at a nursery in Oxford, England, Townsend came down with mild COVID-19 symptoms — a sore throat, tightness in the chest and a slight cough — in early March. Her cough grew steadily worse and she began suffering debilitating headaches, lethargy and muscle pain. Eventually she lost her sense of smell and taste, and felt so bad that she “planned my funeral song.”

“I was admitted to hospital where I was overnight with fluids and antibiotics being pumped into me. I was also severely dehydrated. I got discharged and all the symptoms persisted. I was prescribed many antibiotics by my doctor to try to clear a chest infection,” Townsend said. “I ended up getting mouth and throat ulcers and then severe abdominal pain.”

After a second stint in the hospital, Townsend, who had no preexisting health conditions, says she was treated for oral thrush and ongoing nausea. Now 15 weeks into her battle with the disease caused by the coronavirus, she’s far from back to normal.

“I’ve had a total of six different antibiotics,” Townsend said, adding, “I’m still suffering with chest pain, cough, extreme body aches and tiredness and slight tummy pains, ulcers and some days sore throat and I still can’t go far without getting short of breath and some days I don’t have much of an appetite.”

Last week President Trump discounted the risks COVID-19 poses to young people, saying that increased testing was inflating the numbers of the disease among “young people that don’t have a problem.”

But as the number of new cases of the disease has swelled by 76 percent in the U.S. over the past 14 days, young people who considered themselves in little danger from the virus are the ones being admitted to hospitals.

Fans attend a live stream of a Garth Brooks concert in Ventura, Calif., on Saturday. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)

In Houston, for instance, roughly 60 percent of COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized are under the age of 50.

“We’re definitely seeing this affect young people, and they’re getting quite ill,” Dr. Marc Bloom, CEO of Houston Methodist, told CNBC.

A bookkeeper for her family business and a stay-at-home mom, Stephanie Taylor, 32, is still dealing with the effects of COVID-19, which she believes she contracted in early February.

“It started with a severe nosebleed,” Taylor, who lives in Smethwick, England, told Yahoo News. “Never had one before.”

Next came a burning sensation in her nose and chest, followed by a cough, then the loss of taste and smell. Taylor had not traveled abroad, and for that reason her doctors were skeptical that she had been exposed to the coronavirus. But as the days went by she developed more symptoms, including sore muscles, headaches, dizziness, tinnitus and a kidney infection.

“Then began the nerve pain: burning, pins and needles,” Taylor said. “Crawling and tingling starting in my hand and now it’s everywhere, even my head and face. I have now convinced a new doctor to send me to a neurologist. That was this morning.”

Like Townsend, Taylor is concerned that her generation doesn’t seem to feel they’re at risk from the coronavirus.

“I find it worrying, the mentality that ‘It won’t happen to me,’” Taylor said, “because it can happen to anyone. And I think ultimately they will become part of the problem and continue the spread of the virus.”

Medical staff members at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago in May. (Northwestern Medicine/Handout)

Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading expert on infectious diseases on the coronavirus task force, contradicted Trump’s view that young people “don’t have a problem” with COVID-19.

“To think young people have no deleterious consequences is not true. We’re seeing more and more complications in young people,” Fauci said, adding that “some get mild symptoms and some get symptoms enough to put them at home for a few days. Some are in bed for weeks and have symptoms even after they recover, others go to the hospital, some require oxygen, some require intensive care, some get intubated and some die.”

While researchers are still trying to determine the extent of the lasting damage inflicted by COVID-19, one thing is clear: Just because the disease may not kill you doesn’t mean it will make you stronger. Studies conducted so far point to possible long-term heart damage, scarring of the lungs, impact on the nervous system and a higher incidence of stroke.

In mid-May, New York Times opinion writer Mara Gay detailed her own ongoing struggle with COVID-19. At the time, few people were raising concerns about how the disease was affecting younger people, but Gay, who is 33, developed a serious case that left her with viral pneumonia. While she is continuing to recover and has resumed jogging, the experience convinced her that all Americans, regardless of age, need to take the disease seriously.

“It’s obviously unreasonable to ask people to fully shut down their lives indefinitely — a year, two years, however long it takes to come up with a vaccine — but it is not unreasonable to wear a mask when you’re around others, within 6 feet of them,” Gay told Yahoo News. “It’s not unreasonable to limit indoor gatherings. If you are going to see a friend, do so outside, wear a mask.”

New York Times opinion writer Mara Gay. (Mara Gay via Twitter)

Gay said it is “shameful” that governors in states like Texas “saw what happened in New York” and pushed ahead with hasty plans for reopening anyway.

“You should also consider that you are rolling the dice because you don’t know how your body is going to react. Even if you have a mild case, you don’t know when you are or aren’t infectious,” she said, adding, “and you don’t know how somebody else’s body is going to react.”

As has become clearer over the past few months, people over the age of 60 aren’t the only ones who need to fear what the coronavirus might have in store for them. In part, that’s because roughly one in four young adults has grown up with a chronic health condition such as asthma or diabetes. Those comorbidities can make diseases like COVID-19 potentially more dangerous, but even people without known preexisting conditions can be hit hard by the virus.

“I’ve been dealing with this for 115 days,” Yahoo News Senior Editor Ed Hornick said. “It’s changed my whole perspective on how I go about my life.” 

Hornick, 40, an avid hiker who lives in London, came down with flu-like symptoms in early March that included a fever and difficulty breathing. He initially tested negative for COVID-19, but continued to feel sicker as the days went by and was eventually treated in the emergency room and diagnosed with the coronavirus. In the weeks that followed, however, more problems continued to develop, including extreme fatigue, headaches, joint and muscle pains, blurred vision and an overall confusion referred to as “mind fog.”

“You never seem to have that extra energy to do things. On Saturday, for example, I walked a mile because I had to go to the store and when I got there I was profusely sweating even though it was chilly,” Hornick said. “When I came back, my lungs hurt, my legs were aching, I was out of breath. I wasn’t walking fast, I wasn’t doing anything strenuous. All day Sunday I was in bed and I didn’t wake up until 2 p.m. on Monday. Even just doing minor tasks puts you back like two days, essentially.”

While Hornick does continue to improve and has returned to work, there’s no telling how long the lingering fatigue of the coronavirus will be with him. His doctors, who are struggling to better understand the virus, can’t offer any clear prognosis either.

“That’s what’s frustrating about it. Look, I’ve been tired before. Exhaustion and tired are two different things,” Hornick said. “I forget my friends’ names. I forget names of co-workers. I find myself struggling a lot.”

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