Strategies to encourage teens and young adults to take COVID precautions

February 8, 2022 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD

As the omicron COVID-19 variant drives record high case numbers in the U.S., public health experts are recommending that people redouble their efforts to lower their risk of contracting and spreading the virus. The key steps of risk mitigation are familiar by this point in the pandemic:

  • Getting vaccinated and boosted as recommended
  • Wearing masks and practicing physical distancing in indoor settings when the virus case rate is high in your area and when gathering with people who may not be vaccinated or who may be at higher risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19
  • Testing if you experience symptoms of the virus, have been in close contact with someone who tests positive, or are going to be gathering indoors with people who aren’t members of your household
  • Hand washing or sanitizing
  • Isolating if you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or you develop symptoms
  • Being alert to any changes in your health that could mean you have the virus

While most people are aware of these recommendations, some don’t follow them regularly. Many teens and young adults fall into this group. Some are tired and frustrated with the ongoing restrictions the pandemic is causing. Others reason that since they’re not likely to get seriously ill, they don’t need to take precautions. In addition, the brains of people in this age group are still developing and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control and thinking ahead, isn’t yet fully developed.

The relaxing of precautions and the high transmissibility of this variant have led to significant increases in the number of COVID-19 cases in people between the ages of 18 and 29:

  • In Los Angeles County, California, data from late December 2021 to early January 2022 showed that COVID infection rates for people in this age group are eight times higher than they were a month ago.
  • In parts of Nevada, there was a one week 131% increase in COVID infections in 18 to 24-year-olds at the end of December.
  • In Dallas County, Texas, 25% of new cases in late December occurred in the 18 to 29 age group.

A positive approach to getting teens and young adults to take precautions

Any parent or caregiver knows that arguing or mandating behaviors won’t get the results you want. Instead, start a continuing conversation about the subject to encourage behavior change and consistently model the behaviors you’d like your family members to adopt.

  • First, listen. Find out what your teen or young adult’s thoughts about COVID prevention measures are. Why don’t they wear a mask or practice physical distancing? Is their behavior influenced by what their friends are doing and saying? Are they feeling hopeless about life ever getting back to the way it was before the pandemic? Are they unvaccinated because of misinformation they’ve read or seen?
  • Encourage empathy. While the virus may not make them or their friends seriously ill (although some young people do end up with serious cases of COVID), encourage them to think about the wider impact of their actions. If they contract the virus, especially if they have no symptoms, they could unknowingly spread it to people who are at higher risk of severe disease, like older family members and people with weaker immune systems. Remind them that there are people who can’t yet get the protection of vaccines, like children under 5. It might also be helpful to talk about the impact of rising virus cases on healthcare workers and the fact that when hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID patients, people with other health issues like cancer, heart attacks, and serious injuries may not be able to get the care they need in a timely manner.
  • If they’ll be attending a family gathering, ask them to take steps lower risk before the event. If there’s a birthday, wedding, or family dinner coming up, ask your teens and young adults to tighten up their risk mitigation for a week or two before the event. That should include avoiding unmasked gatherings; wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing, and washing or sanitizing hands as you’re travelling to the event; and taking a rapid test the day of the event.
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