Drink specials, dance floors and summer celebrations — and their allure for 20-somethings who have been cooped up inside for months — may have been the coronavirus’s secret weapons in mounting a resurgence in Louisiana.

Cases are on the rise, especially among people under 30, with clusters of outbreaks now traced to bars near LSU in Baton Rouge and graduation parties in New Orleans. The state has reported 9,250 cases between the ages of 18 and 29 — the highest number of cases within any age demographic in the state, now accounting for 18% of cases across Louisiana.

Stopping outbreaks among the young can be a particular challenge for health officials because younger people often experience milder cases of coronavirus — perhaps some fevers, coughs and fatigue — instead of the life-or-death consequences that coronavirus can carry for older and sicker people. The prospect of hospitalization or even death is often enough to keep older people locked down, but it’s hard to convince younger people to stay home if they’ll barely crack a 99-degree temperature after a positive coronavirus test.

The problem, of course, is that young people get around, and they bring the virus with them.

“The concern is: Will it translate to further spread beyond that age demographic?” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the Louisiana Department of Health’s medical director for the New Orleans region. “We have no reason to think that it won’t.”

The nation’s top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, warned the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday that young people need to be more cautious about their actions during the pandemic, for the sake of themselves and others.

Studies show that coronavirus is often transmitted between people living under the same roof.

A younger person with a milder, or even asymptotic case, of coronavirus can still easily pass it to a parent, grandparent or another person who would face a much tougher time shaking off the virus, said Dr. William Lennarz, the pediatrics system chair for Ochsner Health.

And though it’s rare, young people are not immune from harsher consequences. In Louisiana, 68 people under the age of 40 have died from the virus, and many more have suffered severe coronavirus cases that leave them hospitalized. Fauci noted that the nation is seeing “more and more complications in young people.”

Among the young who ended up hospitalized with coronavirus: Kourtney Butler, 27, of Baton Rouge. She spent several days in late March in the hospital, needing oxygen to help her breathe and getting treatment for nausea, dehydration and a urinary tract infection, she said. And a few days after she went home, she was hospitalized a second time, still feeling nauseous and sick.

Kourtney Butler hospitalized

Kourtney Butler, a 27 year old Baton Rouge woman, was hospitalized during late March with coronavirus. She took this photo from her hospital bed.

During her second hospital stay, she said doctors discovered lingering kidney problems, which she said may have made her coronavirus worse. She said it’s frustrating to see people her age congregating at bars and restaurants with little thought to the risks of coronavirus. She said she has always taken precautions — and continues to take them — because of concerns about coronavirus. She said she emphasizes with people her age who want to enjoy themselves, but she disagrees with their decisions. 

“Before I had COVID, I made light of it as well,” said Butler, who recently graduated from LSU with a master's degree in social work. “The severity of COVID didn’t hit me until I got COVID myself.”

Dr. Rubin Patel, the founder and CEO of Patient Plus Urgent Care in Baton Rouge, said the clinic saw an explosion in positive coronavirus cases connected to young people around LSU last week. He said his six clinics have tested more than 250 people over the past week, many who said they had been at LSU bars or at local high school parties. More than 20% were positive for coronavirus, he said. Statewide, under 10% of tests have been coming back positive.

Most of the young people visiting the Baton Rouge clinics had mild cases with classic coronavirus symptoms: fever, cough, headaches, loss of smell and taste.

Department of Health officials have reported that more than 100 people have tested positive for coronavirus after visiting bars in the Tigerland area over the weekend of June 14. Fred’s in Tigerland will host drive-thru coronavirus testing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday for college students and staff from nearby bars.

The department has also traced at least 25 cases to a “a series of parties” connected to a June 8 graduation celebration in New Orleans for Isidore Newman School students and their parents. Kanter said officials are keeping a close eye on signs that coronavirus is spreading from younger people to older people in their circles. Signs that might be happening would include hospitalizations going up among older people and more of them needing ventilators, he said.

“These teenagers, college-aged students, they feel like they can catch the virus and be fine,” Patel said. “But that is not the issue. They transmit the virus to older people; older people are the ones who are going to suffer and have grave consequences.”

“You have to think of other people,” he added. “That’s the take-home message.”

Patel, Kanter and Lennarz also warned against the notion — bandied about on social media — that young people should try to acquire coronavirus to help build herd immunity for the population as a whole, just as many parents used to purposely expose their children to chickenpox.

“When parents threw a chickenpox party for the kids, the parents rarely got infected” because most of them had already had it as children and were thus immune, Kanter said. Coronavirus is much more dangerous because there’s no segment of the population with herd immunity, he said.

“That pathway would result in lots of people being hospitalized and lots of people dying,” Lennarz said.

Unlike chickenpox, which generally confers lifelong immunity to the infected, It’s unclear how much protection antibodies from the coronavirus afford to people who’ve had it in the past. The coronavirus could also mutate like the flu does every year, rendering antibodies less effective, Patel said.

The long-term effects for people with coronavirus are also still unclear. Butler has mostly moved on and has turned her attention toward her kidneys.

But Alex Johnson, 29, said she has still not shaken off her bout with coronavirus months later.

Johnson, who lives in New Orleans, used to go rock climbing three times a week. Now, she said she can hardly do any physical activity without her heart rate spiking.

Alex Johnson COVID

Alex Johnson, 29, took this photo of herself during her monthslong struggle to recover from coronavirus in New Orleans. 

Johnson first noticed symptoms in late March and went to an emergency room with dizziness, shortness of breath and chest pain. She tested negative for coronavirus, but said doctors told her they believed it was a false negative and treated her as if she had the virus. They sent her home and called daily to check up on her as she developed pneumonia and battled a fever for 20 days.

She’s still coughing, and now regularly sees a pulmonologist, cardiologist and her primary care doctor. She said she wanted to speak out about her experience because she worries that other people her age aren’t taking the virus seriously enough.

“When you’re that sick, it’s terrifying,” she said.


Email Andrea Gallo at agallo@theadvocate.com