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COVID-19 variants impacting Canada's younger population, health officials sound alarm

Last Updated Mar 24, 2021 at 6:46 pm MDT

EDMONTON — Health officials are sounding the alarm over a troubling trend with new variant cases.

Provinces are already seeing a shift in hospitalization demographics.

“If these numbers increase in the younger population, I think we’re going to see increases in hospitalizations and ICU visits in these age groups,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top doctor.

B.C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry said this week that the province has seen several young people in their 30s or 40s affected by COVID-19.

And B.C. isn’t alone in this trend.

In Ontario, those under 40 account for more than half of active cases. In Alberta, 66 per cent of new cases over the last week have been in the 10-39 age bracket.

“And almost 90 per cent of those in ICU for COVID are under 65,” said Alberta’s health minister Tyler Shandro.

The variants does not appear to specifically target young people. But it does have higher severe outcomes overall while being 40 to 70 per cent more transmissible, which may explain the rise in younger hospitalizations.

“And, so, although fatalities were most commonly linked to older Albertans or people with strong underlying conditions, we have a lot of people who have yet to be vaccinated in the intensive care units,” said Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease expert at the University of Calgary.

“And the more people infected in the community, so rising numbers and rising spread, simply means more people will fall into that category even if the percentages are still the same.”

And while younger patients may be less likely to die, the outcome could still be dire.

“The younger you are the tougher the battle is because you have this vigorous immune system fighting this vigorous virus and that plays out a long game with a lot of morbidities,” said Dr. Darren Markland, an ICU doctor at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital.

Another factor? Over a year into the pandemic, many younger people believe they’ve sacrificed plenty for a disease that didn’t hit them as hard during the first 12 months.

“A lot of people who would like to be more social and getting out there and frequenting pubs, restaurants, whatever. They are now at risk as well,” explained Ryerson University occupational and public health expert Thomas Tenkate.

The rise in younger COVID-19 cases comes as older and at-risk Canadians begin receiving their vaccine.

In Alberta, only five per cent of active cases are in those over 70.

But when younger Canadians get the jab, just like older patients, it doesn’t mean that group will be immediately out of the woods.

“Even if you get the shot it’s another two to three weeks before you get optimal immunity,” said Jenne.