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Young people are leading the rise of COVID cases in Michigan. Here's what it means.

young people with masks drinking
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Cases of COVID-19 are back on the rise in Michigan, and young people make up the majority of new cases.

Over the last month, people under 40 account for 60.2% of new cases. More specifically, people aged 20-29 account for 30.2% of cases in the last month, and as of the last census were just 14% of the state’s total population.

The graph below shows a breakdown of new COVID-19 cases by age in the last 30 days.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Michigan: cases are skyrocketing among young people nationwide.

Neil Mehta is an assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. He says it’s clear why cases are increasing among young people: they want to socialize.

“I think that young people are just not social distancing, on average. I think a lot are, but a lot are not. I think folks are getting together in big groups — it’s summertime, a lot of people have not seen their friends in a long time, the weather’s nice. Just like what’s happening with all age groups, people miss having their normal lives. And I think that’s what we’re seeing play out here and in other states.”

Mehta explains that calculating risk is different for, say, a 21-year old and a 71-year old.

“Because [young peoples’] risks of getting sick are very low, for them personally, going to a large party or gathering, they can make that calculation. ‘Well, okay, yes, this is something that I want to do. The chance of me getting sick is quite low. I’m willing to take that risk.”

And while young people are on the whole less likely to die from COVID-19, that doesn’t mean everyone under 40 should be heading to the bars because they’re completely safe. Some young people are dying from the disease, many are being hospitalized, and even those that aren’t seriously ill may face lifelong health problems from the disease.

Plus, Mehta says, a spike among young people is likely to spread through the rest of the population eventually.

“We’re seeing sort of an uptick in some of the older age groups, 40s and 50s. I can’t say for sure we can attribute that to the spread among younger people, but it’s not unreasonable to think that’s what’s happening.”

This surge in cases among young people is also going to seriously affect universities’ plans for reopening. Many colleges and universities in Michigan are planning “hybrid” semesters, meaning students can choose to return to campus and take a mix of in-person and online classes. But things have changed since many of those strategies were announced.

“When universities were deciding about whether to reopen in the fall,” says Mehta, “the numbers didn’t look like they do now for college-aged students. So I feel this is going to be very consequential in terms of how universities start their semesters. And I would urge university administrators to think very critically about what’s going on here ... and have these numbers inform what they want to do in September.”

Mehta says bringing any large population of young people to campus is a risk.

“It just gives more opportunities for students to get together. And I don’t blame them! We were all there at one point,” he says. “But I think bringing large numbers of students into one place just gives more opportunities for folks to congregate and increase the risk of these superspreading events that we’ve seen in East Lansing, and we’ve seen in other parts of the country.”

Mehta says in order to slow the spread, public health officials need to improve their communication with young people. But more importantly, policies that encourage social distancing need to be in place.

“If these numbers keep going up among this age bracket, what do we need to do in order to at least hopefully in the shorter term enforce some of the distancing policies?” says Mehta. “I think we’re at that stage where we need to have those discussions.”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
Brad Gowland joined Michigan Radio in 2019 to help with the station's growing digital side, specializing in data collection and digital audio.
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