As widely reported, last Monday marked the 28th day in a row the country’s rolling seven-day average of daily new COVID-19 cases shattered all previous records. As reported by UPI, in my home state of Texas, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has surpassed 200,000, according to updated data from state health officials.
Reports UPI, Los Angeles County health officials noted that young people — who comprised only 10% of all hospitalizations in April — this month have accounted for about 25% of the total with a “significant increase” in the percentage of cases among residents between 18 and 40 years old, with almost 50% of all new cases occurring among younger people.
This surge in young people infected has sparked a good deal of shaming and finger-pointing. I admit I have done my share, suggesting last week that young bargoers seem absolutely unconcerned about a deadly illness either contracted or spread. As I was reminded this week by an opinion piece by Rebecca Ortiz in U.S. News, such scorn is unproductive and likely ineffective in producing a change in behavior.
Ortiz is a professor at Syracuse University specializing in health communication, social marketing and entertainment media effects. She writes that while it may seem like a persuasive tactic to get those who refuse to adhere to health guidelines to fall in line, “it also could unnecessarily create more division and tension among an already anxious and fearful population … (and push) the nation further into an us vs. them mentality.”
Ortiz says that we tend to overgeneralize the risk-taking behaviors of young people.
“Risk-taking is a complex issue and age is often not the sole or even the most important determinant,” she adds. To lump all people together based upon these characteristics can result in “ineffective, stereotypical messaging,” she writes. According to survey data from the Pew Research Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when it comes to mask-wearing and social distancing, most Americans of every adult age bracket reported engaging in these behaviors often or all of the time.
If we want to appeal to young people, public health messaging “also must emphasize how these behaviors can help us get back to work, back on college campuses and back to all the places we enjoy spending time with others,” she writes. “We should reinforce the fact that most young people do wear masks and engage in social distancing, and recognize the circumstances in which this pandemic is affecting them personally.”
Her observations have made me realize that with all that we know or do not know about this plague of a disease and its constant reminder of the frailty of life, we are missing the greater message that needs to be delivered. Good health is a precious gift. As such, we should do all we can to preserve it and never take it for granted.
As a recent New York Times report points out, growing evidence shows most infected people are not spreading the virus. A small number pass it on to many others in “superspreading events.”
Who are these superspreaders? According to a study published in April by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, it seems to have more to do with circumstance than biology. A lot of transmission seems to happen in a narrow window of time starting a couple of days after infection, even before symptoms emerge. “Doctors have observed that viruses can multiply to bigger numbers inside some people than others,” the Times reports. “It’s possible that some people become virus chimneys, blasting out clouds of pathogens with each breath.”
Talk of superspreaders is also stirring up a story from over a century ago about a 37-year-old Irish immigrant cook named Mary Mallon. Today, she is better known to folks by her nickname, “Typhoid Mary.”
As recounted by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, author of “Terrible Typhoid Mary,” in recent NPR interview, in 1906, a wealthy family on a summer vacation outside of New York City was hit by typhoid fever. Nearly half the household became ill. According to Bartoletti, the owners of the vacation home needed to find out why and how their renters got so sick. To get to the bottom of it, they hired a man named George Soper, who began his quest by doing what we would now call “contact tracing.” He realized that the bacteria that causes typhoid fever could have been passed through food and the person making it. But by then, Mary Mallon had moved on.
Soper soon discovered that of the last eight families that had hired Mallon as a cook, seven had contracted typhoid fever. The findings presented sufficient evidence for authorities to get involved and track her down. She was eventually found, arrested and brought in for testing against her will. She did not feel sick and therefore refused to cooperate, even after being confronted with test results that showed she harbored the bacteria that produces typhoid fever.
After being isolated in quarantine, in 1910, it was decided Mary should be released on the condition that she never work as a cook again. Sometime later, at the Sloane Hospital for Women, typhoid fever broke out. It was discovered that Mary was working as a cook at that hospital under a pseudonym. In just three months, she had spread typhoid to 25 people. Two people had died from it. Mary was ultimately traced to a total of nearly 50 typhoid cases and three deaths. After her second arrest, the name of “Typhoid Mary” was permanently established, and she was forced to spend the rest of her life in quarantine. She never showed symptoms of typhoid fever, and there was no precedent for a healthy person carrying it in this age, when germ theory was in its infancy.
“Her story gets at the very complexities of balancing public health and individual freedoms that we’re still dealing with today,” says Ramtin Arablouei of NPR.