Millennials, teens are Utah’s biggest sources of COVID-19 infections, and the state hasn’t been able to stop that

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Parents and students within the Salt Lake City School District rally for K-12 students to return in-person to school this fall, July 15, 2020.

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The coronavirus killed Zander Moody’s grandmother. It hospitalized his grandfather and sickened his parents and uncles.

So 16-year-old Zander was careful to not contract the virus — until he wasn’t.

The teen acknowledged Friday that he got lax about social distancing. He started hanging around more of his friends. They showed symptoms first. Then Zander felt sick.

He got word of his test result July 9. He has COVID-19.

“I don’t think we were really worried about it,” Zander said, “until one of our friends actually got it.”

People ages 15 to 44 account for about 60% of Utah’s coronavirus cases, according to the state health department. Lowering their infection rates would mark a major victory in reducing the spread, but Utah has seen little if any success in trimming those numbers.

Cases tell the story

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

While new cases among Utahns between ages 25 and 44, essentially millennials, have declined as a percentage of new infections, that trend has been offset by new infections among teens and those in their early 20s, who since schools let out in the spring have become the biggest source of new cases on a per 100,000 population basis.

“Through their lens, it is not a serious disease,” said Sue Jackson, a professor and head of the Department of Public and Community Health at Utah Valley University. “It is more of an annoyance to their lives.”

Utahns ages 15 to 44 who have been sickened have a hospitalization rate of about 3% and a fatality rate below 1%. Still, they can spread the virus to older people at higher risk of complications or death.

Infected workers, for example, are thought to be the primary way the coronavirus has entered so many Utah nursing homes.

The teens, 20- and 30-somethings don’t seem to appreciate how contagious they can be, Jackson said. She noted that age group includes many of the parents who have complained about masks being required in public schools.

Jackson, whose own children attend the Alpine School District, where angry adults on all sides of the masks-in-schools debate addressed the school board last week, said Friday she is feeling defeated about Utah’s ability to contain the coronavirus.

“I don’t know how you fix this,” Jackson said. “I don’t know how you get people to take this seriously.”

Work is at play here

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Latter-day Saint missionaries wear masks as they walk on Main Street in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

In Salt Lake County, residents who are ages 20 to 29 represent the biggest segment of new coronavirus cases on a per 100,000 population basis, said Michelle Vowles, an epidemiologist with the county health department.

While that group often is seen as synonymous with nightlife, Vowles said there are no reports of anyone in Salt Lake County contracting COVID-19 in, say, a bar.

So it may not be a case of the young and the reckless. Instead, Vowles said, information from contact tracing shows these adults may be getting the virus at food, retail, warehouse and construction jobs — where social distancing may be more difficult.

“That age group,” Vowles said, “tends to be our workers.”

When the pandemic struck, the average infected Salt Lake County resident was 43 years old, Vowles said. Now, he or she is 36.

The solution for the younger adults, she added, is the same as it is for everyone — wash your hands, physically distance and, when you can’t ensure that space, wear a mask.

New data shows how effective Salt Lake County’s recent mask mandate has been in reducing the spread of the virus, but Vowles said early reports indicate that more people are, at least, wearing face coverings.

“A lot of times,” she said, “it’s hard to change behavior just by knowledge alone.”

Make it personal

Jackson said a public service blitz targeted at people ages 15 to 44 might prove effective. Utah has already had campaigns to reduce suicide and alcohol use among young people.

Any COVID-19 push, Jackson said, can’t just tell young people how many the virus has killed, but should tell personal stories of those who have died.

“That’s so much more impactful,” she said, “than just sheer numbers.”

Zander Moody’s grandparents Carol and John Moody contracted COVID-19 in early May. Carol Moody died May 21 at age 71. John Moody is recovering.

The virus spread to Zander’s parents and uncles over May, but not to the teenager or his sister. Zander began to feel a fever and sore throat July 8.

When his mother, Hilary Moody, took him to Alta View Hospital for testing, she said she started crying and had a panic attack in the parking lot. It’s the same place she took her in-laws for testing when they were sick.

“It just kind of brought it all back,” she said.

After Zander tested positive, the family members did what they did in May. The patient — Zander — stayed in his room. His mother brought him food. She, Zander’s father and sister are all in quarantine to ensure they can’t infect others.

Hilary said the Salt Lake County Health Department warned her that she and her husband could contract COVID-19 again. Her 13-year-old daughter has not had the virus yet and fears contracting it after what happened to her grandmother and seeing others in her family so sick.

Before he fell ill, Zander was spending time only with a few friends, his mother said, but she believes that created a false sense of security.

“You don’t factor in that those kids are going to football or another school where they could get it,” the mom said.

Zander said fatigue is his only remaining symptom. Not spending time with friends has been the hardest part of the pandemic for kids like him.

“We’re teenagers,” he said. “It’s kind of what we do.”

— Tribune reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this story.