Every Thursday afternoon, Ryan Bergman puts on his mask for a three-hour, socially-distanced chemistry lab with about 100 other students. He then goes home and spends time with 10 of his friends who have only been in contact with each other.
That is the extent of Bergman’s physical interactions with the Gainesville community.
Although the UF marine sciences sophomore is a healthy 19-year-old with no preexisting medical conditions, he said the lack of knowledge about the long-term effects of COVID-19 frightens him.
“I don’t think that people should be approaching the unknown and kind of just saying, ‘Whatever, happens is going to happen,’” Bergman said. “I think we need to be a little more cautious.”
As of Wednesday, a little over 900 people between the ages of 0 and 29 contributed to the approximately 210,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 Data Tracker.
But at a campaign rally in Ohio last month, President Donald Trump claimed that the coronavirus affects virtually no young people, only the elderly who have underlying medical conditions.
Bergman said he couldn’t disagree more with the president’s statement.
While the real threat to young people isn’t necessarily death, he said, their dismissive attitude toward the future effects of the virus is scary.
“We don’t know the long-term impact yet,” Bergman said. “I don’t think it’s really safe to say it’s not going to impact me when we really don’t know. It’s only been around for close to a year and we don’t know enough about it yet to make that kind of claim.”
Dr. Jennifer Co-Vu, a pediatric cardiologist at UF Health Shands Hospital, said people tend to think of the coronavirus in terms of mortality as opposed to morbidity. As some children experience milder symptoms, it reinforces the idea that the virus doesn’t affect the youth, she said.
But Co-Vu has already seen the effects on children.
“Certainly, COVID-19 affects young people,” Co-Vu said. “I’m a pediatrician and I’ve seen pediatric patients affected with COVID-19. They do have milder symptoms compared to adults, but right now, they do get it. It’s not true that they’re not affected.”
Co-Vu said myocarditis, an inflammatory condition of the heart, has been found among patients under the age of 18 who were previously healthy. They are now experiencing severe chest pain and heart inflammation, eight weeks after a COVID-19 diagnosis, which could lead to permanent scarring of the heart muscle.
“There’s a lot of unknowns with the COVID-19 infection,” Co-Vu said. “Why it affects the heart is virtually also an unknown.”
While other infections can also lead to myocarditis, medical professionals are closely observing its presence as a result of COVID-19, Co-Vu said. Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which leads to inflammation of the heart, lungs, kidney and eyes, has also been prevalent in both symptomatic and asymptomatic coronavirus patients, she said.
“We actually created an algorithm now because we’re seeing it more and more as school opened,” Co-Vu said. “But recently they’ve considered that it’s happening in adults as well. They call it multisystem inflammatory syndrome in adults, or MIS-A, and this is happening more and more in young adults.”
According to Dr. Cathy Boon, a pediatrician at Gainesville Pediatric Associates, the notion that children and young adults don’t have a legitimate health risk is unrealistic.
“This idea that nothing happens to young people or that they can’t be sick is kind of ridiculous,” Boon said. “They can get sick just like any of the rest of us.”
Boon said when a person comes into contact with COVID-19, the virus enters and spreads through the body by attaching itself to a set of receptors in the cell membrane. Children under the age of 10 have fewer receptors, making it harder for the virus to attach itself. Despite the difference in risk between children and adults, children still have a chance of experiencing severe symptoms, she said.
Additionally, Boon said she also sees the effects COVID-19 can have on children on a personal and emotional level. As children miss out on normal life experiences, their development and mental state could be at risk.
“What is it doing to these kids who are all sitting at home in front of their computers instead of being in the classroom?” Boon said. “When children are learning language, they’re learning how to interpret emotion and facial expressions and a lot of us have to wear masks. I think we’re going to see ripples of that for a while.”
Still, Boon said she is worried about the way young people are quick to dismiss the consequences of contracting the virus.
Young people are less likely to personally see it as a real threat, as many are now experiencing a phenomenon called caution fatigue, Boon said.
“If you perceive a threat for a period of time, you can sort of have an elevated level of caution,” Boon said. “But if the threat doesn’t get you directly, it’s hard for you to maintain that level of caution.”
Caution fatigue, Boon said, is the primary reason why students in college campuses are slipping back to their normal way of life. As the threat appears less significant, many have become complacent with simply living with the virus, she said.
Sabrina Rutner, a 22-year-old UF accounting graduate student, has taken notice of that phenomenon.
Rutner said she is shocked to see cramped crowds of mask-less students waiting to enter bars in downtown Gainesville. While students make up a large portion of the Gainesville population, those who are dismissive of the virus should still be conscious of the danger they bring to higher risk members of the community, she said.
“As someone that’s older in Gainesville, I interact with the regular Gainesville community,” Rutner said. “I definitely feel that they (students) are not acknowledging that other people live in Alachua County besides UF students.”
Despite Rutner’s efforts to keep herself safe for the sake of others, she said she doesn’t see the virus as an immediate threat to her health. Statistically, Rutner said, the percentage of young people who have died is not significant enough for her to see it as a real risk.
“It seems overly evident that, yes, it can affect someone with underlying conditions at a young age,” Rutner said. “But unless you have underlying conditions, you are 99.99% guaranteed to either be asymptomatic or not die from it.”
But as a pediatric cardiologist, Co-Vu said she has seen the reality to which not many others are privy. With medical professionals working to bring down the virus’ growing numbers while evaluating the long-term effects, she said, COVID-19 has now become a test of patience.