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‘We’re sounding the alarm’: New coronavirus surge in RI varies by age

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Young adults have fueled a recent surge of coronavirus cases in Rhode Island, but the trend is also beginning to be seen among older adults, who are statistically more likely to be hospitalized or die if they contract the virus.

A Target 12 analysis of R.I. Department of Health data shows adults between the ages of 19 and 24 years old accounted for about 20% of all COVID-19 cases reported since the first week of August.

Since the start of October, cases have remained high among younger adults – many of whom have returned to college campuses for the fall semester – but they have also begun to spike among older Rhode Islanders.

For example, cases among people in their 50s have more than doubled in the last two weeks, totaling 188 for the week ended Oct. 10. That’s the highest weekly amount for that age group since mid-May. Likewise, cases are growing rapidly among Rhode Islanders in their 30s and 40s.

The trend has caught the attention of state leaders. During her weekly coronavirus news conference Wednesday, Gov. Gina Raimondo returned to a sober tone that had largely disappeared over the summer months following the initial wave of the disease in the spring.

Raimondo stopped short of calling the renewed surge the start of a second wave, which health experts have predicted could happen sometime this fall or winter. But the governor did call on Rhode Islanders to banish any ideas of hosting or attending Halloween parties, and to cancel Thanksgiving plans.

“It’s small gatherings that are causing the problem,” Raimondo said, adding she planned to implement new restrictions Thursday.  

The governor defended the state’s decision to bring back schools for in-person learning – which has earned her sharp criticism from some parents, teachers’ unions and local districts – saying cases have remained relatively low among the K-12 community.

Since Sept. 14, the state has discovered at least 175 cases among the virtual learning community, along with at least 230 cases from the in-person and hybrid learning community. Raimondo also said case trends are stabilizing in colleges and universities, even though 19- to 24-year-old Rhode Islanders have reported more cases than any other age group over the last few weeks.

“We have it under control in K-12, we’re getting it under control in colleges – not quite there yet – but we have broad community spread in the community,” Raimondo said.

As cases have grown, so have the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital.

During the last two weeks, hospitalizations grew from 96 to 131 people, marking the sharpest increase since the spring. Raimondo also pointed out hospital admissions had more than doubled over the last month.

“That’s a wake-up call,” Raimondo said. “I’ve been hearing from the people who run the hospitals, ‘Gov, we’re getting concerned.’”

And while young people have fueled new cases, the age group is not contributing in any significant way to hospitalizations. A Target 12 analysis of weekly data between Sept. 16 and Oct. 14 shows hospitalizations are trending upward among people between their 40s and older than 90.

The trend reinforces widespread agreement within the medical community that COVID-19 is more harmful to older adults and people with underlying health conditions. Throughout the pandemic in Rhode Island, hospitalizations and deaths have disproportionately affected older adults.

To that end, people who have died after contracting coronavirus have mostly been over the age of 70 years old since Sept. 16, according to the Target 12 analysis.

Despite the gloomy numbers as of late, health officials remain bullish the state could get out in front of the situation if Rhode Islanders are willing to change their behavior.

“We are sounding the alarm,” Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said. “We can stop the trend that we’re going in.”

The advice echoes what’s been said for months: stay home if you’re sick, wear a mask, keep six feet apart from others and wash your hands. But Alexander-Scott and others are now stressing that people should wear masks whenever they’re around anybody other than their immediate family.

“Masks are not meant for us to just wear in front of strangers, masks are meant to wear in front of everyone,” Dr. James McDonald, the state’s medical director, told 12 News on Wednesday.

McDonald, who said he’s concerned that some people people still don’t understand that wearing a mask should be “the norm,” warned the situation could start deteriorating quickly — especially as the weather gets colder.

“This is a relatively nice time of the year; things could get a whole lot worse really quickly,” he said. “We don’t want to be in the situation in three weeks where we’re talking about larger issues.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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