Messaging is vital to prevent significant new spikes in youth COVID-19 cases

As cases of COVID-19 explode among young people, experts say that the message is critical.

As the days get longer and the weather gets warmer into June and July, young people tend to gravitate to more activities outdoors such as sun tanning, hiking or playing at parks.

As governments start to reopen, this has led to a big question being asked by many. Are young people going to go outside despite the concerns over COVID-19?

All of these available activities means that proper messaging is essential to letting the youth know what they are allowed to do.

Emergency room physician Andrew Petrosoniak believes that what is missing is a clear outline from authorities. 

“What we haven’t seen is a good outline, a general outline, of what is risky behaviour and what is not by the authorities. They kind of do it indirectly, but I don’t think it has been done as well.”

As for some more gatherings happening soon, Petrosoniak says that there is a high possibility of something happening again and gives some advice for authorities issuing guidelines. 

“Oh, yea. I think it is highly likely in some iteration for sure. I think that we should expect that. I also think that we should script out the critical moves for people. What do we really not want them to do?”

“Every single person on earth right now knows that you don’t wanna be within 6 feet of another person. That 6 feet number is so memorable that it is very easy to recall…What you are trying to do is get people doing the least risky things the most often.”

For Petrosoniak, scripting out these critical moves requires giving people the safest and most straightforward choice. 

“If you design spaces and activities so that they can be as safe as possible, then people are most likely to do that. They will do the safest thing if they design it to be the easiest thing. The path of least resistance…People are not that interested in doing stuff that takes more energy.”

Petrosoniak also notes that a good start is to pick a couple of guidelines for people and repeat those guidelines all the time.

“You can nudge people in a direction and help them do the right thing you want them to do and still provide them with autonomy. So if you can do that with activities, well then that’s a good thing.”

Some cities in Ontario have already begun to roll out new messaging to youth.

In Hamilton, health officials are rolling out social media campaigns designed to change the behaviours of young adults. These young adults now account for 43 per cent of total cases over the last ten days.

The campaign aims to tell young people more about what they can do rather than what they cannot do.

After previous instances of gatherings at parks, Toronto introduced physical distancing circles designed to show people where they can sit so that they remain physically distant while also going to the park. 

Toronto has also opened up the CafeTO program that will try to provide more outdoor dining areas to help restaurants and bars create more physical distancing for people on patios during the summer months. 

According to Toronto Public Health, people ages 20-29 in Toronto also accounted for 17 per cent of all cases in March. Now that same group accounts for 25 per cent of all cases.

In Peel, on April 8, people in the 20-29 age group made up 13 per cent of cumulative cases; on June 9, they accounted for 18 per cent.

Province-wide, On April 5, this age group accounted for 14 per cent of all cases. On June 5, they made up 18 per cent of the total.

The plan to lower those numbers is to let people know ahead of time what they can and cannot do regarding COVID-19 restrictions.

Petrosoniak feels that authorities need to make sure everyone understands what is allowed as they move into the summer. 

“Acknowledging, listen to anybody, the summer is coming, we know you guys are gonna get out there, here is how to do it safely and pick one or two things for them to remember.”

The COVID-19 lockdown has also caused much stress for people. 

According to Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index™, COVID-19 has and continues to have a negative impact on mental wellbeing, despite a slowing of infections. Most provinces are proceeding with a phased reopening. 

“Our Mental Health Index™ shows that Canadians are struggling to cope with changes on how they socialize, work and maintain overall health and wellbeing,” said Paula Allen, senior vice president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index™.

Allen also adds that younger people are more likely to have mental health risk factors.

“What I can say about the younger demographic is that anything that disrupts your future potential is experienced much more significantly, the younger you are. Consider the angst of someone graduating from university with no job prospects versus someone in their 60s with a stable income, no mortgage and who had been contemplating when to retire. Younger people also have more risk factors, including isolation and unstable finances, which are the two biggest drivers of the Mental Health Index score.”

Mental stress overall also increased significantly from April to May, with those reporting the most significant stress increase from those having reduced salaries in April.

For some individuals, they do not have much fear of COVID-19. 

Fortinos employee John White says that he does not feel in danger when working despite being labelled an “essential worker”. 

“I pay more attention when I feel that the threat of infection and death is greater…I was talking with my other co-workers, and we were asking what would make us quit our jobs at Fortinos and we all answered with if there were more cases in our local area.”

Others are mad at the response from political leaders, and the reopening guidelines have been out of place.

College Student Nimrit Singh added that while the quarantine has been frustrating, seeing people gathering has made him even more upset. 

“It was upsetting to see some gatherings of people because it is slowing down the process of going back to normality and I feel like everyone there should have gotten fined…I’m sure it is also frustrating for everyone else that is quarantining and is sacrificing going out”.