COVID’s terrifying new target group
A feature of coronavirus that emerged early in the pandemic was its tendency to inflict serious illness and death on predominantly elderly people or those with pre-existing health conditions.
Young and otherwise healthy people were left largely unscathed, with many experiencing such minor symptoms - or none altogether - that they didn't even realise they were infected.
But the emergence of new mutations of COVID-19, dubbed 'variants of concern' by epidemiologists, has changed all of that.
Dodging sickness and even death are no longer are safe bet for young people, as countless examples internationally have shown.
'Hitting harder and faster than before'
Canada is currently in the midst of a devastating third wave of infections, sparked overwhelmingly by the spread of the highly infectious B117 variant, known as the UK strain.
Public health officials say it has now likely replaced the original COVID-19 virus in large parts of the country, and its dominance has seen a shift in who is likely to fall ill.
They say the new onslaught is hitting young Canadians particularly hard, with doctors shocked by how many are winding up in hospitals - and intensive care units.
Dr Kashif Pirzada, an emergency doctor in the Canadian city of Toronto, told CTV that the people "filling the ICU" at his hospital "are all in their 30s, 40s and 50s".
"It's infecting younger people harder and faster than before," Dr Pirzada said. "The variants have changed things completely."
He shared a side-by-side comparison of two lung X-rays to demonstrate the impact COVID-19 is having on young people.
On the left is a healthy set of lungs, while on the right are those of an ICU patient in their 30s, showing large pockets of fluid build-up.
Overnight, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pleaded with Canadians, especially young people, to heed the warnings and take infection control measures seriously.
"This isn't the news any of us wanted, but hospitalisations are surging, ICU beds are filling up, variants are spreading and even people who had convinced themselves they didn't need to be concerned are getting sick," Mr Trudeau told reporters.
Canada's chief public health officer Dr Theresa Tam said the variants - specifically, the UK strain - has increased the risk of hospitalisation by 60 per cent and the risk of ICU admission by 100 per cent.
But alarmingly, the UK strain has lifted the risk of death by 60 per cent, Dr Tam told the media.
"These severity indicators can be seen across all age groups of the adult population," she said.
Dr Tam said those regions being hardest hit by the third wave are reporting high numbers of younger people experiencing serious illness.
"Many of them deteriorate quite quickly and have to be admitted to the ICU quite immediately, and then they spend quite a big length of time staying in the ICU, which means that there's a capacity impact as well," Dr Tam said.
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'Ten rounds with Tyson'
In the US state of Michigan, another surge of coronavirus cases is once again overwhelming hospitals - but they too have noticed a shift in the age of patients.
Younger and otherwise healthy people infected with COVID-19 are winding up in emergency rooms and intensive care units, doctors say.
One of them was Fred Romankewiz, 54, a construction worker, who told CNN that he was about to get his vaccination but cancelled because he felt unwell.
It turned out he had COVID and the father, who is otherwise healthy and has no medical conditions, quickly found himself in hospital.
"I felt like I went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson," Mr Romankewiz told CNN.
"I was absolutely physically exhausted. I mean, I felt like I had been beat up; I felt like I had been in a car accident. I mean, it was crazy."
Michigan is battling an outbreak of two COVID-19 variants - predominantly the UK strain, but also a mutation known as B1351, which originated in South Africa.
Across the state, the number of daily hospital admissions for younger patients with COVID has exploded due to the rapid spread of the new variants.
For example, the number of patients in their 30s with COVID has soared by 600 per cent and for those in their 40s it's up 800 per cent.
A third mutation that also appears to impact younger people is the P1 variant, or the Brazilian strain, which is also highly infectious.
Epidemiologists in the hard-hit South American nation fear it could be three times deadlier in infected people aged up to 45.
In the first few months of the pandemic, the average age of infected patients in Brazilian hospitals was between 60 and 65.
Now, it's estimated to be sitting at about 37.
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A terrifying perfect storm
Epidemiologists are still examining the three new variants of concern, as well as keeping a close eye on other mutations to determine if they too pose a threat.
But for the three causing worry right know, experts know this:
1. They are significantly more infectious - in the case of the UK strain, up to 70 per cent more
2. Illness caused is likely to be more severe and last longer
3. The risk of requiring hospitalisation - as well as acute care - is much higher. So too is the risk of death
4. Young and otherwise healthy people are falling ill in large numbers.
The rapid spread of new variants is forcing governments to consider new infection control measures, from venue closures and non-essential gathering caps to shutting down cities once more.
Paris has just entered a new period of lockdown in a bid to quash its new wave of infections, as hospitals reach capacity, while the Canadian province of Ontario has also locked down.
In hard-hit US states, authorities are either trying to convince their citizens to don masks and adhere to social distancing or rejecting pleas from health officials to enact stricter measures.
In many parts of the Western world, age groups least likely to follow COVID-19 restrictions, such as limiting non-essential gatherings, were young people.
Images emerged last weekend of throngs of 20 and 30-something Germans crammed into parks for picnics as the country sweltered through a heatwave.
That's despite the European country being in the midst of a devastating new wave of infections, predominantly in the form of the UK strain.
America has witnessed similar scenes recently over the Spring Break period, with holidaying university students descending on beach hot spots like Miami in enormous numbers.
Dr Leana Wen, a professor of health at George Washington University in the US, told CNN that "younger people are more mobile and engaging in more activities, and that's probably what's (contributing to) an increased number of cases".
Originally published as COVID's terrifying new target group