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'They're Feeling Invincible': White House Steps Up Warnings To Young Adults

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, speaks during a news briefing with the coronavirus task force at the White House on Wednesday.

Officials are stepping up their warnings to younger Americans about the coronavirus, because they can more easily spread the virus without having symptoms and now because new evidence shows the potential for some younger people to suffer severely from it.

At White House briefings this week, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator for the White House's coronavirus task force, has expressed concerns that not everyone is taking social distancing guidance to heart.

"We are asking every single American, no matter what your generation, from Z and up to X, and millennials in between, to really ensure that you're following these guidelines," Birx told reporters on Tuesday. "We hear every night of people who are not in work, moving that time into bars and other areas of large gatherings. If we continue with that process, we will fail in containing this virus."

Some of the most indifferent responses have been circulated.

Schools are closed across much of the U.S., and many states have closed bars, restaurants, gyms and casinos. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has discouraged gatherings of more than 10 people, even at home.

Birx issued a warning on Wednesday that some younger adults can potentially get very sick too, citing unspecified preliminary reports from Europe.

A new CDC analysis of coronavirus cases reported in the U.S. before March 16 found that 20% of hospitalizations were among adults age 20 to 44. That age group accounts for 12% of patients who required treatment in an intensive care unit.

Older populations and people with underlying health conditions are most likely to face complications from the coronavirus.

Nevertheless, Birx and other public health experts have continued to emphasize the important role that young people play in stemming the spread of coronavirus.

Experts say that because young people who are infected sometimes experience mild symptoms or none at all, they can easily become vectors for unknowingly spreading the virus to others, including on surfaces such as countertops, doorknobs and grocery carts.

"You have the potential then to spread it to someone who does have a condition that none of us knew about and cause them to have a disastrous outcome," Birx said, addressing millennials directly.

During Wednesday's White House briefing, a reporter asked Trump whether young people, his supporters in particular, are still taking their cues from Trump's initial messaging that downplayed the threat.

Trump brushed off the suggestion.

"I think my earlier comments are to be calm," he told reporters. "I mean, I do want people to be calm, because we're going to win this, and it's just a question of time, and I want it to go quickly."

But he also said people should follow public health experts' current guidance for social distancing and need to take it seriously.

"We don't want [young people] gathering, and I see they do gather, including on beaches, including in restaurants — young people," Trump said. "They're feeling invincible ... but they don't realize that they can be carrying lots of bad things home to grandmother and grandfather and even their parents. So we want them to heed the advice. We mean the advice. And I think it's getting through."

Trump's messaging has shifted in recent days. At a Feb. 26 news conference, Trump said, "This is a flu. This is like a flu." At a rally in South Carolina, he called Democratic criticism of his coronavirus response a "hoax." And this month, Trump told Fox News, "We have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work."

"I think those kinds of statements have a chilling effect on the people who are working in the U.S. government departments and agencies who are trying at CDC, at FDA, at NIH ... to actually help stop the spread of the disease," Beth Cameron, who ran the National Security Council's pandemic response team under President Obama, told NPR on Friday.

Social distancing for all ages, not just high-risk populations, is also designed to "flatten the curve" — in other words, slow the spread of the virus to reduce the potential for a huge, sudden spike in cases that could overwhelm the health care system.

"I'm the mom of two wonderful millennial young women who are bright and hardworking," Birx said this week. "And I will tell you what I told them: They are the core group that will stop this virus."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 19, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
This story has been clarified to note that President Trump's "hoax" comments referred to Democratic criticism of his response to the coronavirus, not the virus itself.