Younger adults in Bexar County are contracting coronavirus at higher rates since Texas reopened its economy, and although they account for fewer deaths, healthy adults aged 20 to 40 might not be spared long-term effects of the disease, experts said.

In Bexar County, more than 87 percent of people testing positive for the coronavirus as of Tuesday were under 60 years old. A quarter of the people hospitalized in the county are under 40 years old, according to San Antonio Metropolitan Health data.

People aged 20 to 29 in Bexar County account for nearly 25 percent of total positive cases, with one death in that age range to date.

Testing likely plays a part in the shifting profile of COVID-19 patients, but Dr. Ian Thompson Jr., president of Christus Santa Rosa Hospital-Medical Center, said young people shouldn’t take population-specific data to mean that there is no cause for concern when it comes to contracting the virus.

People in these age ranges are suffering consequences they had likely not anticipated, whether it is the financial impact of emergency room hospital bills or long-term physiological effects that can result from COVID-19, local health experts said.

Thompson said that the idea that contracting coronavirus would “be a walk in the park [for this population] is patently false.”

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“They can lose their kidneys and end up on dialysis long-term,” Thompson said. “They can have a tracheostomy … a tube that goes into their lungs, and ultimately have significant inability to walk even a few paces” following their diagnosis.

Of the 137 people who have died from COVID-19 in Bexar County to date, 101 were age 60 and older despite that age range accounting for only 12.4 percent of all coronavirus cases.

Regardless of age, people hospitalized for COVID-19 symptoms typically aren’t released very quickly. “And that’s going to be a load of debt,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said during a coronavirus briefing on Tuesday.

“Even if you do get better, no one wants [those consequences],” Nirenberg said. “And again, it’s very simple to prevent.”

In early May, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the state to test all residents and staff in Texas nursing homes, which resulted in an early spike in cases for people above age 65. But current coronavirus positivity rates mirror both national and local population demographics. Except for children ages 19 and younger, who continue to contract the virus at a lower rate, emerging data show more proportionality across age ranges.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in mid-March showed that about half of the coronavirus patients in the U.S. with known ages were 55 or older, but that age bracket comprises only 29 percent of the country’s population. The March data also found that 80 percent of deaths occurred among people age 65 and older, with the highest percentage of severe outcomes among people over age 85, according to the data.

However, the CDC’s most recent data, published on June 19, shows that nearly 70 percent of people in the U.S. who tested positive as of May 30 were younger than age 60.

Some public health experts say the early slant toward people over age 65 was a result of the short supply in test kits at the beginning of the pandemic, so tests were prioritized for people over age 65, first responders, and people with chronic health conditions.

Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager and interim director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, said that while people under age 60 are the majority population in Bexar County, the rate of positives among that group has less to do with demographics and more to do with young people taking more risks than their older counterparts.

“I think we saw a little bit of the invincibility mentality that we often see in younger people,” Bridger said. “Young people disregarded the safety precautions we [recommended] when it became more optional” due to reopening decisions at the state level.  

And despite early numbers indicating higher positive rates among older people, “there are people in their 30s who have died leaving behind a wife and small children, and that is just unnecessary,” Thompson said. “Worse than that is that the individual who comes down with the disease may go to visit their mother, father, grandmother, or grandfather, and those folks are more likely to die.”

As expanded testing has revealed the spread of the coronavirus across all age groups, health experts across the globe are warning that anyone can develop severe COVID-19 symptoms and die. But they continue to stress that older people and those with chronic health conditions are still most at risk of complications or death. 

For the sake of personal and community health, Thompson said, it’s as important as ever for people of all ages to practice social distancing and wear masks in public.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.