For Mary O’Brien, the physical symptoms of COVID-19—that persistent headache, congestion, extreme fatigue—were nothing compared to the emotional and social price she paid.
O’Brien, 21, of Normal, found out she was positive in early May after a trip to the Bloomington drive-thru testing site. Almost immediately after being tested, O’Brien said she was ostracized by several of her friends. The harassing texts got so bad that she literally left town, relocating temporarily to a relative’s vacant house up north so she could quarantine. She moved out of her apartment in one day, while sick with COVID-19.
“I felt so alone, so hated for something I didn’t ask to be hated for,” O’Brien said. “It just happened. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I probably walked past the wrong person at Aldi, you know?”
O’Brien is among the growing number of people in their 20s who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus. Those in their 20s are the No. 1 age group for cases in McLean and Peoria counties—about 1 in 4 cases—exceeding the statewide average. Cases among young people have surged across the country in recent weeks.
In McLean County, about 15% of 570 confirmed cases have been people without symptoms. That percentage is even higher for 20-somethings.
“That is concerning because we don’t know what COVID looks like,” said McLean County Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight. “It doesn’t look like someone is ill. If someone is asymptomatic, they could still be spreading that virus.”
Gov. JB Pritzker highlighted the high number of 29-and-under cases during a recent visit to Peoria to warn the region was potentially just days away from renewed restrictions as case counts and hospitalizations spike. He pointed to social gatherings and household spread from family member to family member as culprits.
The most likely explanation is those in their 20s are most likely to be social, and they are often working high-exposure, front-line jobs at grocery stores, restaurants and bars, said Jacqueline Lanier, an associate professor in Illinois State University’s Department of Health Sciences.
And while otherwise healthy, 20-somethings like O’Brien are less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, but they do face a stigma and finger-pointing that older patients do not.
“As a very social age group, they have the social norms of being together and a fear of prompt social isolation,” said Lisa Thompson, executive director for the Bloomington nonprofit Project Oz that serves a growing number of youth displaced from their housing because of COVID-19. “If you say to someone that you’re undergoing testing, or that you had exposure, that often means to a young person, ‘Go away. You can’t be around us.’ And for that age group, isolation is just devastating.”
O’Brien still doesn’t know where she contracted COVID-19.
She’s a student at Illinois State University who works as a political campaign manager and at a Bloomington sporting goods store. Before her May 1 test, O’Brien said she followed public health guidelines, like social distancing, to what she felt was a reasonable degree.
“I can only guess where it came from, but I know it didn’t come from partying, and that’s where everybody thinks it comes from. Like, ‘Oh you were just partying too much,’” O’Brien said. “Yeah, I went out to a party or two. I’m not gonna deny it. I was not following the CDC guidelines like an angel. I admit to that. But a lot of people think young kids are coming down with it mainly from partying, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
Reaching young people
Now, public health officials and college campuses are trying to reinforce messaging about masks and social distancing in ways that resonate with young people.
“With the messaging, you have to lead with empathy and compassion. You can’t just say, ‘Do this,’” said Lanier. “And you need to acknowledge that it’s hard. No one loves to wear a mask. Wearing a mask sort of sucks. But it’s not forever. And this is for the benefit of you, your friends, so you can eventually be together in the way you want to be with your friends.”
Past public health campaigns have found success with a harm-reduction approach, said Lanier, who has a background in community health. Instead of just telling underage people not to drink, for example, campaigns have tried to meet them where they are by pointing out binge-drinking behaviors, how much alcohol your body can process in an hour, and the risks of drinking and driving.
“Instead of saying, ‘Just don’t do this,’ we have to provide some alternatives,” Lanier said. “OK, if you can’t be in a large group together, there are other things you can do. Get together with a smaller group of friends, physically distanced, maybe outside, but also wear a face covering.”
Peers can be effective advocates, too.
“I’m a Millennial myself. We are not invincible,” said 37-year-old state Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria. “We need to take this message very seriously, and everyone needs to do our part to work together as a community, and work to beat this very serious public health challenge.”
Since her bout with COVID-19, O’Brien said she’s been a sounding board for others who are getting tested or have questions—a counselor of sorts.
And O’Brien said she’s not alone in facing bullying after a positive test. Her current roommate got it even worse than she did, O’Brien said.
“Be compassionate. It’s so scary to be alone. When I was going through it, I couldn’t even hug my Mom when I was crying because I felt like my friends hated me. Things like that you’re robbed of when you’re sick,” O’Brien said. “The level of compassion just wasn’t there.”
“Yeah, we can all judge. Yeah, we can all be mad and frustrated. I know I’m frustrated now when people don’t wear masks in public,” O’Brien said. “But in the end, be compassionate once someone gets the disease. It’s not like someone asked for it.”