‘Drowning on land’: Younger patients and doctors sound alarm over changing COVID demographics

It’s a tragic reality that the vast majority of B.C.’s COVID-19 deaths have been among seniors in care homes, but with most of those vulnerable residents vaccinated, the demographics of serious and fatal infections are shifting so that younger people are now more likely to be hospitalized and die from the disease.

Of the 16 people who died from COVID-19 over the weekend in the province, only two were care home residents.

The province’s top doctor emphasized the changing age groups at a press conference on Monday, which caught many people by surprise but has been readily apparent to doctors and healthcare workers on the front lines.

“We have seen a shift in the demographics because a lot more (younger people) have COVID now and a few of them … get critically ill and it’s very scary to see,” said Dr. Dan Kalla, head of the St. Paul’s Hospital emergency department. “I’ve seen 30-something-year-old patients show up just unable to breathe – it’s as if they’re drowning on land.”

Kalla said the shocking images posted online by a Toronto doctor of monochrome scans showing lungs full of fluid, the patients just 30 and 35 years old, are familiar to every doctor in the province treating COVID-19 patients of all ages. He said it’s “vitally important” that younger people understand the risks associated with the disease.

“We’ve had a couple cases at St Paul’s with people who quite literally were fine the night before, who are then not only put on life support but put on bypass because their lungs don’t … work anymore, and it happens so quickly,” explained Kalla. “It’s not like the flu. We didn’t see that with other viruses, we don’t even see this with other bacterial infections the way that it comes on so quickly with COVID.”

Younger patients speak out

When 46-year-old Carrie Mackay got sick in January, she muddled through with symptoms for days before a friend urged her to go to hospital. She would ultimately spend 10 days in the ICU and more in a hospital bed before going home Feb. 14.

“When you’re in the hospital, that’s all you hear – you’re so young!” she recalled.

Mackay said recovery has been slow, even after being discharged from hospital: “Feeding my dog was a struggle, getting dressed, having a shower, changing your clothes – I would be so out of breath I would have to sit down and do everything super slow.”

Mackay, who also made a life-long friend while fighting for her life in hospital, been chronicling her illness and recovery online, and has made it her mission to open people’s eyes to the reality of the disease.

“People always ask, ‘Are you a smoker, do you have asthma?’ I have none of those. I’m really active and out with my dog a lot,” she said. “I’m feeling so much better now and think, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ and then get to the top of the stairs and (realize), ‘Oh yeah, I need to slow down.'”

Craig Rogers had a similar experience, even though when he got sick “COVID” was hardly part of our lexicon. The 45-year-old Langley teachers became extremely sick in March of 2020, when he wasn’t even eligible to be tested.

“It started with flu symptoms like fatigue, chills, fever and then within a few days developed a cough and shortness of breath and I couldn’t walk more than a couple of feet without having to rest,” said Rogers. “I didn’t think I had COVID at first because it was so new at the time.”

Like Mackay, he was healthy at the outset. He eventually lost 20 pounds over the course of the illness, which saw him hospitalized for several days and has still left him feeling fatigued, with a reduced sense of smell and odd tastes in his mouth.

“I’d never felt this sick before and I have no underlying conditions, nothing,” he insisted. “I’ve been healthy my whole life.”

More younger people sick, or just fewer older ones?

The country’s top doctor warned that variants may be driving some of the demographic shift in hospitals.

“With increased replacement, if you like, of previous virus strains with the new variants, particularly the B.1.1.7 variant, we know it can take off fast,” said Dr. Theresa Tam in Ottawa. “It has faster spread and right now the highest rates or highest incidents are in the younger age groups.”

Ontario has a higher proportion of variant cases, with an estimated 42 per cent of infections believed to be variants, but in Alberta they’re believed to be about 11 per cent of active cases. On Monday, Albertans learned half of all hospitalizations and about 90 per cent of ICU patients are now under the age of 65.

CTV News asked B.C.’s Ministry of Health for an aged-based breakdown of hospitalizations, which are at the highest levels seen since early January. They said they were working on compiling the numbers.

Dr. Bonnie Henry said there are various factors behind the growing number of younger people sick in hospital, including the rising vaccination rate among care home residents and seniors, but the biggest factor may be overall infection numbers remaining high.

“Some of it’s related to where some of the community clusters have been seen, we saw that with those outbreaks that were happening in First Nations communities where people at a younger age were much more likely to need hospitalization or critical care and sadly, where we’ve seen younger people die from the virus,” she explained. “So it’s partly that, it’s partly that as we’re protecting more older people, and there’s more transmission in that younger age group … What we’re seeing is increases again in the 20 to 39 year age group and up to age 59.”

Kalla said while the risks are lower for people without underlying health conditions, and drop for younger and younger patients, it’s still a gamble to assume your body can easily fight off the virus.

“I know there’s this false sense of security because most young, healthy people do fine with it but a certain percentage is going to get incredibly sick and some of them are going to die,” he said. “It’s easy to forget that when you know 10 people who recovered from COVID without too many complications…but you can’t just rely on the fact that you were healthy before you had COVID. It’s a very unpredictable virus.”

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