Pedestrians with masks on Ocean Boulevard

Pedestrians with masks stroll along Ocean Boulevard on Saturday, May 23, 2020. Most beachgoers went without a mask. Photo by Christian Boschult 

As COVID-19 spreads across South Carolina, state and local testing data show that while young people are least likely to show symptoms or require hospitalization, they play host to the largest percentage of positive tests and are prone to spreading the virus to at-risk populations who are most likely to die from the disease. 

Across the state, 17 percent of positive COVID-19 tests were found in the 21-to-30-year-old age group. No other age group played host to such a high percentage of cases.

“What we have to do is educate them that they could be, in the absence of a test, spreading [the virus],” said Dr. Gerald Harmon, vice president of medical affairs for Tidelands Health.

By contrast, only 5 percent of the state’s positive tests showed up in people 81 and older. That’s the lowest percentage of positive tests in adults, even though that population represents more than 36 percent of deaths from the virus, making them the most likely to die if they fall ill. 

Horry County has hosted more than 870 new cases of COVID-19 since June 7. More than half of those have been people under 40, according to DHEC. And one in four have been in people aged 21 to 30. Since June, the age breakdown of cases has shifted towards a younger population. 

Tidelands Health has also noticed the trend, using data from its free testing clinics. 

According to Tidelands, “of more than 500 people ages 16-25 who were tested at the clinics, 16 percent were positive, followed by 11 percent of adults ages 26-40 and 10 percent of children 15 and under.” But, Tidelands said, 6 percent of adults aged 41-64 tested positive and only 2 percent of people 65 and older tested positive. 

“Not just in Horry, but across the state, we've been seeing an uptick in cases in younger individuals,” said DHEC Public Information Director Laura Renwick in an email. “We think it may be because of a lack of wearing masks and not refraining from group gatherings.”

In addition to social distancing, avoiding crowds and practicing good hygiene, masks slow the spread of the virus by helping prevent the wearer from giving it to someone else. 

Masks are an especially critical tool because people can spread the disease without knowing they have it. Harmon said an estimated 40 percent of COVID-19 transmissions occur before symptoms even show up.

The Tidelands doctor said younger people are more likely to have close social contact with each other, which facilitates the spread of the virus. 

“This is adolescent and young people behavior. It’s hard to be too condemnatory,” said Harmon, 66. But, he added, “they have a responsibility to be kind to their neighbor and not give it to old people like me.”

Even as young people are more likely to engage in riskier behavior, they’re also more likely to show only mild or no symptoms.

Harmon said symptoms in young people may be as inconsequential as a light cough or mild fever. 

“They might blow it off,” Harmon said of the symptoms. “It might last a day or two, or a couple of hours. That’s the impact on their young healthy systems.” 

Since June, Horry County and the state’s number of new cases have spiked. The uptick coincides with an increase in testing, but testing isn’t the cause of the rising number of cases.

There have been a total of 22,682 COVID-19 tests performed in Horry County, according to DHEC. Almost 41 percent, or 9,221 tests, have been performed this month. As of Thursday morning, 985 of Horry County’s 1,417 total cases were caught in June. 

But even as testing in Horry County has expanded, the percentage of tests that have come back positive has also gone up, indicating a larger percentage of the population is becoming infected, whether they realize it or not. 

In Horry County, 6 percent of tests came back positive in the week ending on June 6, according to DHEC, while the percent of tests that were positive had risen to 15 percent for the week ending on June 13. 

When the state shut down for a good part of March and April, social distancing and avoiding crowds were at the forefront of people’s minds. The spread of the virus flattened and prevented the state’s healthcare system from being overrun. And Harmon said there’s no danger of that happening right now. 

But people are starting to forget the precautions they’re supposed to take.

“Now we’re seeing the results of loosening of restrictions,” Harmon said. “More people are congregating and more people are forgetting their social distancing parameters.”  

On Wednesday night, Harmon and his wife went out to dinner. He noted that while staff were wearing masks, many patrons were not. 

“I noticed my wife and myself were the only ones in the area with the masks on,” he said. “All the other folks in the restaurant were looking at us like we were from Mars. They need to get over that.” 

Here are some upcoming testing events in our area:

• June 18, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. McLeod Health, 3207 Casey Street, Loris

• June 19, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Inlet Square Mall, 10125 Highway 17 Bypass, Murrells Inlet

• June 24, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tidelands Health Rehabilitation Hospital, 100 Water Grande Boulevard, Little River

• June 26, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Coastal Carolina University, 100 Chanticleer Drive, Conway

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