Virus infections trending younger; Study points to mask effectiveness

Younger people are contracting COVID-19 in much greater numbers in Cameron County, though it’s older residents and those with underlying conditions who are winding up in the hospital.

Joseph McCormick, renowned epidemiologist and founder of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville, said the increasing incidence among young people — part of an overall trend of a dramatic rise in new cases — is at least partly due to them choosing not to follow recommendations from public health experts to wear masks or facial coverings when in public.

He noted that before Memorial Day and the start of Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased reopening of the economy, the county was seeing 10 or 11 new cases every few days. The last report from the county public department revealed 57 new cases on June 13, up from 27 new cases reported on June 8. The latest report from the county, June 11, has the virus death toll at 44. McCormick said the recent data on new cases in the county shows that people under 30 make up about 60 percent of new cases.

“That’s not the normal distribution of our population,” he said. “So what does that tell you? They’re the ones who are circulating around and going to the restaurants and bars, no masks, and they’re getting infected. But when you look at the age of the people who are being hospitalized, they’re all over 50 and 60, or most of them.”

As of Sunday, the county was reporting 1,138 total cases, with 760 people recovered. McCormick said hospitalizations in the county likely will continue rising. Meanwhile, as of Monday Texas had broken its own record for hospitalizations six times in less than a week.

“The people that are going to be suffering are the ones with underlying conditions, and older people, in part because they’re the ones that have the highest proportion of underlying conditions,” he said. “The message that’s got to go out to young people is, if you want to kill your tia and your abuela and everybody, just keep doing what you’re doing and you will.”

McCormick said that too many people still refuse to believe, or perhaps care, that they can have the virus and spread it to loved ones and strangers even if they themselves don’t feel ill. Meanwhile, a study just published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presents evidence that wearing masks or other facial coverings is the most effective way to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, he said.

The study found that airborne transmission of the virus is “highly virulent” and the most common way the disease spreads. By studying infection trends and mitigation measures in Wuhan, China, Italy and New York City, the authors discovered that the number of infections was significantly reduced in places were facial coverings were mandated.

“Other mitigation measures, such as social distancing implemented in the United States, are insufficient by themselves in protecting the public,” according to the report. “We conclude that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with simultaneous social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing, represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. Our work also highlights the fact that sound science is essential in decision-making for the current and future public health pandemics.”

Abbott’s order announcing his phased reopening plan went into effect May 1, superseding all local mandates to slow the spread of the virus, including the county’s facial covering mandate. Meanwhile, testing in the county lags far behind where it needs to be, with less than 4 percent of the population tested so far, McCormick said. First responders should be receiving tests, as should employees of all businesses that deal with the public, he said.

“We’re not even testing contacts,” McCormick said. “We’re tracing contacts, but we’re not testing them. All we’re doing is calling them (and asking) are you sick?”

The steep rise in new cases in the county, statewide and around the country isn’t the “second wave” health experts have feared, but the rather the first wave getting a second wind since social restrictions have been relaxed, he said, adding that the economy won’t come back as long as the virus continues to rage and people still don’t feel safe going to restaurants, for instance.

“Right now it seems to me if businesses want to reopen they’ve got to assure people that you can go there safely. I think what’s going to happen, opened or not, people are going to vote with their feet,” McCormick said. “A lot of people aren’t going to risk it.”

Although local leaders’ hands are tied in terms of implementing measures to combat the spread, thanks to the governor’s order, McCormick said something may have to give if the number of new hospitalizations goes high enough.

“I think Gov. Abbott’s going to be forced to make some changes, at the minimum require masks to be worn in public,” he said.