Surge in coronavirus cases linked to more Texans in their 20s getting sick, officials say

Gov. Greg Abbott and health experts say young adults may be taking social distancing less seriously

Published June 22, 2020 3:23PM (EDT)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images)
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

Texans under the age of 30 are testing positive for the new coronavirus at a higher rate than previously seen since the pandemic began, contributing to a recent surge in the number of cases in the state, Gov. Greg Abbott said during a press conference Tuesday.

Data from several counties and health experts confirms the trend in younger people testing positive across Texas.

"There are certain counties where a majority of the people who are tested positive in that county are under the age of 30, and this typically results from people going to bars," Abbott said during the conference. "That is the case in Lubbock County, Bexar County, Cameron County."

Abbott said that it's unclear why more young people are contracting the virus, but he speculated that it could be from increased activity over Memorial Day weekend, visits to bars or other types of social gatherings.

This comes as Texas businesses have begun to reopen with relaxed restrictions under Abbott's executive orders. As of last Friday, restaurants can operate at 75% capacity, while almost all other businesses can operate at 50%. Texas water parks and amusement parks have been allowed to reopen as well. In recent weeks, thousands of Texans have also flooded the streets of some of the largest cities to protest police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death.

One of the areas of concern Abbott mentioned was Hays County, where 476 of the 938 confirmed cases are people ages 20 to 29. People in their 20s accounted for 50.7% of all the cases in Hays County as of Monday, an increase from Friday, when the age group made up 42% of total cases.

Last week, epidemiologist Eric Schneider warned that those numbers are "staggering" for Hays County.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg also expressed concern Monday about more young people getting sick.

"What's most concerning is that we've seen the largest increase in infection among 20-year-olds," Nirenberg said in a televised interview with ABC, adding that city officials are seeing younger patients in the hospitals as well. "While they may survive an illness, younger people are going to be stuck with a pretty hefty medical bill at the end of it."

In Travis County and the city of Austin, the median age of all positive cases has ticked downward to 38 years old this week, from 39 years old last week. Twenty- to 29-year-olds make up 24% of all cases in the area and 8.3% of the hospitalizations.

As for Dallas County, the trend is reflected in hospitalizations rather than new cases. Almost a month ago, on May 19, 18% of all people hospitalized were between the ages of 18 and 40, the age range used by local officials to designate young adults. On Tuesday, that age group made up 21% of hospitalizations.

Dr. David Persse, public health authority for the Houston Health Department, said the same trend is materializing in Harris County. Overall, 17.5% of all people impacted in that area are people in their 20s.

"It is my current theory that elder persons have become more vigilant in taking precautions," Persse said.

Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at Texas A&M University, said young people may be acting less cautious than older Texans because they're careless or more confident in their ability to fight off the virus, she said.

"It boils down to behaviors," she said. "Younger people, because they're asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, going about business as usual, still wanting to hang out with each other. ... They feel perfectly comfortable that they're fine and they will be fine."

Some have suggested the surge in cases could be due to increased testing access.

But for Galveston County, the increase in cases affecting young people is not a result of more testing, said Dr. Philip Keiser, the local health authority.

"Fewer people are getting tested, but more people are becoming positive. Of those becoming positive, they are overrepresented by young people," he said.

Keiser estimated that last week, about half of the new cases in that county were in their 20s, which he says could be due to "COVID fatigue" and more people are going out than before.

During the press conference, Abbott blamed lax adherence to social distancing at bars for part of the problem. He reiterated the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's recent warning to bars and restaurants that serve alcohol that if they do not follow COVID-19 guidelines, their licenses could be suspended for 30 or 60 days.

"There have been pictures that I have seen and others have seen about these bar-type settings where clearly the standards are not being followed," Abbott said. "Enforcements from the TABC should bring these types of settings more and align to being safer standards."

Abbott's comments come as the number of people hospitalized for the virus in Texas reached record highs eight of the last nine days.

There were more than 2,500 confirmed COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals Tuesday, nearly 200 more than the day before, according to state data. That number — a gauge for the severity of the disease and the amount of available hospital beds — has risen almost every day since the beginning of June. There are still about 15,000 hospital beds open in the state, as well as 1,700 ICU beds.

"Even though there are more people hospitalized, we still remain at the lowest threat level to our hospital capacity," Abbott said Tuesday. The number of new reported cases has also increased. Abbott attributed recent and sometimes dramatic upswings to targeted testing that has been done in hard-hit facilities like meatpacking plants and nursing homes.

Another metric to evaluate the situation is the length of stay in hospitals. Dr. Mark Escott, the interim health authority for Austin and Travis County, said that about half of the people hospitalized go out in four days or less.

"But we still have some which are prolonged for 30, 60 days, sometimes longer," he warned.

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

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