explainer

No, COVID-19 isn't just an "old" person's disease. Here’s what you need to know.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a particular focus on the elderly population. We know they are among the most vulnerable of those infected; we’ve had strict limitations imposed on visiting aged-care facilities; and tragically, we’ve seen that the six Australians who have died from the virus were aged 77-95.

But while acknowledging and protecting vulnerable people is an absolutely crucial part of tackling the outbreak, it’s also important that younger Australians don’t mistake this as an ‘old person’s disease’.

People of all ages are being diagnosed: from an 8-month-old infant in South Australia to children, teenagers and people in middle-age. And a small proportion of those also develop serious symptoms.

This is not about fear, it’s about facts, and making sure all of us are taking prevention measures seriously.

Watch: Easy ways to protect yourself from COVID-19. Post continues after video.

Video by WHO

Let’s look at the numbers.

Who is being diagnosed with COVID-19?

The latest Australian Department of Health report shows that (as of Saturday) the median age of confirmed cases nationally was 47.

New South Wales, the state with the highest number of cases, has a more recent breakdown, from Wednesday.

It showed a few key things:

  • Of the 267 cases in NSW, the highest number — 65 — was recorded among people aged 30-39.
  • 11 cases were recorded among children aged 10-19.
  • Just 20 involved people aged 70 and over.

Do younger adults get serious symptoms?

The vast majority of younger adults diagnosed with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms. But a small number do become seriously ill.

The exact number of mild versus moderate and serious cases isn’t available for Australia.

But of the 36 per cent of Australians hospitalised, the highest numbers were among people in their 30s, according to the Department of Health report. That was 18 hospitalisations as of Saturday, compared to 14 among the next highest age bracket — 60-69.

Of course, those numbers are still small. And again, the overwhelming proportion of young people with the virus will have mild symptoms. But as the local outbreak scales up, the number of young people who become seriously ill with COVID-19 will increase along with it.

As we’re seeing from countries with large outbreaks, like Italy and China, hospitals can become overrun by the sheer volume of patients and this can leave health workers in a difficult ethical position.

ADVERTISEMENT

“When this takes off, it’s young people who hit your intensive care units,” physician Dr Norman Swan told ABC’s Coronacast podcast, “and you’re making decisions between a 40-year-old and a 60-year-old.”

It’s therefore crucial that younger people don’t become complacent and ignore recommendations about protecting themselves: from social distancing to symptom monitoring and hand hygiene.

What about children?

Children account for the smallest number of COVID-19 cases, so there is limited data available. Particularly in Australia.

But we now at least have a decent picture based on numbers out of China. Research was published on Monday that looked at 2,143 confirmed cases among Chinese children under 18; the largest pediatric study on novel coronavirus so far.

It confirmed that most kids with the virus — 94.1 per cent — were mild to moderate cases or had no symptoms at all.

But it also revealed that infants and young children are the ones most likely to fall into the other 5.9 per cent.

Of the 125 children who became severely or critically ill from COVID-19, 76 were aged five and under. And 40 were infants under 12 months.

While parents of infants are advised to be prudent, it’s worth remembering that the total number of cases among children is incredibly low and so is the case fatality rate.

Among those 2,143 cases in the study, the authors only reported one death — a 14-year-old boy in Hubei province where the virus originated at the end of December 2019.

The fact that children emerge relatively unscathed, is one of the few positives we can take from this pandemic.

READ MORE:

What you need to know about COVID-19 today, Thursday March 19.

Sore throat? Cough? A doctor explains what to do if you have coronavirus-like symptoms.

“As an Australian teacher, right now I believe our most important job is keeping kids calm.”

“Don’t pass on your fear.” 8 tips on what to tell your kids about coronavirus.

The Australian Government Department of Health advises that the only people who will be tested for COVID-19 are those with symptoms who have either returned from overseas in the past 14 days or been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days.

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

Feature image: Getty.

00:00 / ???