Fauci urges younger people to consider their ‘societal responsibility’ amid COVID-19 pandemic

In a livestreamed conversation with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci urged younger people to consider the implications of their actions in the scope of the larger COVID-19 pandemic.

“By allowing yourself to get infected, you are propagating the pandemic,” Fauci said. 

“You can’t think of yourself in a vacuum,” Fauci said, noting how younger individuals could easily and innocently infect someone more vulnerable, such as an ill or older person.

Fauci also told the Facebook CEO that he understood younger individuals’ desires to go out to bars and venues, saying, “I was there at one point.”

But he also emphasized that younger people need to consider their “societal responsibility” with how they respond during the pandemic. 

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Public health officials have warned that the novel coronavirus can spread from asymptomatic individuals, and an unknowingly infected younger person who feels relatively healthy can give the virus to an older person who could develop severe health conditions and die.

While older individuals are at a higher risk of developing severe illness as a result of contracting COVID-19, younger people are accounting for a significant portion of the growing amount of COVID-19 infections in the U.S.

In Florida, which has reported skyrocketing daily new case counts of the coronavirus, mayors of cities in the southern part of the state gathered earlier this week with Gov. Ron DeSantis and told him that gatherings of young people were a key factor in the rise in cases that emerged in June in their region.

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Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said younger people were celebrating the end of school or college, in some cases joining street protests and otherwise just getting together at house parties, underground venues and restaurants that converted themselves into bars late at night in violation of the rules.

With so many close-knit, multigenerational families in the community, spread to older members of families seemed inevitable, he said.

“Since the young kids started infecting each other, now we see the results as more older folks are now going into the hospital,” Gimenez said Tuesday. “Exactly what we feared — that they were going to take it to their parents, that they were going to take it to their grandparents.”

One Florida family’s story brought those fears into sharp relief. 

For weeks, Michelle Zymet pleaded with her stepson to avoid going out with friends and to always wear a mask.

“It’s just not the time,” the Florida woman says she told him, begging him to think about his dad, who is at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness because he is overweight and diabetic.

One evening in early June, the young man went out against her wishes, gathered with friends and removed his mask while eating and drinking. Days later, he felt cold symptoms and a friend at the get-together told him she had tested positive for the new coronavirus. By then, it already had taken hold in the young man's household.

The man's father, John Place, 42, is now fighting the virus at a hospital's intensive care unit.

The illness's spread among members of the Plantation, Florida, family highlights the outcome dreaded by authorities who feared the recent surge of cases hitting younger Floridians would spread to older, more vulnerable people.

“They don’t necessarily listen. It could be peer pressure," said Zymet, 42. "Maybe they think, ‘None of us are sick. We are fine.’ They don’t understand many of us are asymptomatic and are positive carriers of the virus.”

The young man, who did not want to talk to the media, had told his father and stepmother that he initially thought he had a common cold and took over-the-counter medication. When he heard about his friend testing positive for the new coronavirus, he still didn't think he had it.

But members of the family started to fall ill one by one. Place has now been in the hospital for nearly three weeks.

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Zymet said she has been called an “awful mother,” and an “evil witch” for placing the blame on the stepson, but she said she thought it was important to share her family's story amid a surge of infections first detected among young people.

She said the younger generation "won’t know until it hits home.”

On Wednesday, Florida passed the 300,000 mark  of confirmed coronavirus cases and has been averaging about 96 deaths per day — more than triple the rate it was about a month ago.

Speaking with the New York Times, Joseph McCormick, a professor of epidemiology at UTHealth, said, “What is clear is that the proportion of people who are younger appears to have dramatically changed... it’s really quite disturbing.”

As of July 16, there were more than 3.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States and over 13 million across the world.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.