Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – When Allessandro Cabral began to experience symptoms of COVID in early March, he didn’t think much about it. In fact, the 41-year-old even reassured his friends: “I have COVID,” he wrote to them in a WhatsApp message from his home in the northern area of Rio de Janeiro. “But I’m not at risk: I eat healthy, I play sports. It will pass.”
However, after a week of mild symptoms of COVID, Cabral’s condition worsened significantly. He could no longer breathe and went to a local hospital, then to a field hospital, where he was put on oxygen and was about to be intubated.
“But God did not allow it,” he told Al Jazeera. “I felt sensations of death, it’s a miracle that I survived. I wouldn’t even wish that on my worst enemy.
As he started to improve after 12 days of battling the virus, he was surprised – not only because he was at risk, but by the many other patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s also under. respirators in his department.
Like brazil grappling with its deadliest peak pandemic, with a series of grim record-breaking coronavirus-related deaths and infections, health officials have reported an alarming change: Since the new year, more and more young patients are developing severe symptoms of COVID and die.
According to data collected by the Brazilian Association of Intensive Care Medicine (Amib) in 1,593 public and private intensive care units, the number of Brazilians between the ages of 18 and 45 requiring intensive care for COVID-19 has tripled between the first wave from September to November 2020. and second wave from February to March 2021.
The data also showed a staggering 193% increase in coronavirus-related deaths for this age group, from 13.1% to 38.5% over the same period.
In a report released on Friday, the Brazilian public health institute Fiocruz also found that the country’s COVID epidemic was getting younger.
The report says new infections among people aged 39 and 59 jumped almost 316% from the start of the year to mid-March, while deaths in this age group also increased by 317 % during the same period.
“Last year we had more critical elderly patients. Now it is completely separate. We are dealing with a significant number of severe patients in their 30s to 50s, ”Dr Anne Menezes from Getulio Vargas Hospital in the city of Manaus in the jungle told Al Jazeera.
The 29-year-old said seeing younger patients die was particularly devastating. “We recently lost patients my age. It could have been me. We fought to save them, but there comes a time when we have to stop, ”she said.
Menezes said that since January, when Manaus’ health system collapsed, the virus behaved much more aggressively, making it difficult for doctors to predict which patients will develop severe cases and which will not.
“When we have patients with the same profile, we don’t know what their path will be. We have had two patients recently, both in their early 40s and obese – a common Brazilian profile – with different results, ”she explained.
“The 44-year-old had classic symptoms at first, but the virus developed quickly and we lost her. But the 41-year-old man with the same profile survived.
While the exact reason for the surge in new infections and deaths among young Brazilians is unclear, health experts have highlighted some possible related factors.
First, the trend has coincided with the emergence of at least one new COVID variant. The so-called “P.1 variant,” which first appeared in the Brazilian city of Manaus at the end of 2020, is likely a factor, said Fiocruz epidemiologist Jesem Orellana of the state of ‘Amazonas.
It is widely believed that the variant is more infectious and transmissible – up to 2.2 times – and 25 to 61% more able to re-infect people who had been infected with a previous strain of the virus, according to recent studies by researchers. researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in collaboration with the University of Oxford and Imperial College London.
According to a March 4 Fiocruz study, more than half of all COVID infections in six Brazilian states were “associated with worrisome variants,” including P.1, as well as British and South African strains.
“It is very possible that these new strains are more lethal. But we don’t yet have sufficient scientific data to confirm, ”Orellana told Al Jazeera.
In Manaus, the P.1 variant was found to be most prevalent at around 91% at the peak of its first wave from Jan.1 to 13 of this year, according to Fiocruz.
Orellana found that the number of infections among Brazilians aged 40 to 50 in Manaus increased by 9% in the second wave, compared to the first. Orellana’s analysis also found a 12% decrease in the number of infections in people over the age of 60.
Other public health experts have pointed to the refusal of some members of the public to comply with coronavirus-related measures – especially during the holidays – and the growing desperation for informal workers to return to work, as potential reasons for the increased infections in young people. .
Increasingly, observers have also blamed President Jair Bolsonaro for encouraging large crowds to continue to gather despite the growing pandemic; Brazil has recorded the second highest number of COVID cases and deaths in the world with more than 12.4 million infections and more than 310,500 deaths.
Despite this, Bolsonaro told the Brazilians in March last year that they did not have to fear “a little cold,” a statement that experts say could have led young Brazilians to believe they were somewhat “omnipotent”.
The death of Brazilian social media influencer Ygona Moura, 22, shocked many, after a viral video in which she was celebrating crowded parties angered audiences earlier this year.
“A successful aglomeracao night (overcrowding),” she said in the video posted to Twitter in January. “I hunt baile funk parties, I want to dive into the crowd again.” Weeks later, she was rushed to hospital with complications from COVID-19, intubated and died within days.
‘We have no hope’
Marcelo Otsuka, coordinator of the pediatric infectology committee of the Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases, said Brazil’s vaccination plan had not been effective, making the lack of vaccines and the lack of a schedule for young people a source of despair.
Brazil still only vaccinates people over 60 years of age. Of the 19 million vaccines administered to date, only 7 percent of the population has received a first dose, while only 2 percent of Brazilians have received both doses.
“The deployment of the vaccine has not been adequate so far. The vaccines did not emerge as we expected, ”Otsuka said.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s richest state, a new study by the Sao Paulo Institute of Tropical Medicine (IMT-USP) in partnership with the Sao Paulo Municipal Health Secretariat found that P. 1 and UK accounted for 71% of new cases. Health officials also said 60% of COVID patients under the age of 60 now need intensive care beds.
Experts say younger patients could delay seeking medical help due to pressure on Brazilian health facilities. Fiocruz found in its March report that intensive care units have 80% capacity in 25 states and 90% in 17 others.
Sao Paulo’s Health Secretary Jean Gorinchteyn said in an interview this month that young patients are arriving at the hospital with more advanced symptoms and therefore spending more time in the hospital in serious condition. Gorinchteyn said the average time previously spent in intensive care units was seven to 10 days, but has now dropped to between 14 and 17 days.
Further south, in the hard-hit state of Santa Catarina, currently on red alert, the trend is just as worrying. The Santa Catarina Epidemiological Surveillance Directorate (Dive / SC) told Al Jazeera that patients between the ages of 20 and 39 accounted for more than 43% of new infections in the state.
Today the global epicenter of COVID-19, Brazil exceeded 307,000 total deaths Friday after a record 3,650 Brazilians died in a single day, according to the National Council of Secretaries of Health (Conass).
State governors and mayors have put more stringent restrictions in place in a desperate attempt to reduce the number of casualties. But for Otsuka, it might be too little too late. “We should have had these lockdowns from the start. But there must also be a combination of health, politics and social commitments, ”he said.
In the meantime, Menezes, the doctor from Manaus, said many Brazilians had given up hope. “Without a vaccine, our fight is like a flies crash. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.