Pandemic of the youth: 20-somethings make up 40% of state’s COVID cases

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Health authorities believe one in 20 young Victorians are sick with COVID-19 as more than 22,000 residents aged in their 20s are currently counted as an active case, representing about 40 per cent of new infections.

The actual number of cases is likely to be much higher, with results suppressed by the scarcity of rapid antigen tests, problems with PCR testing capacity and the fact young people are less likely to develop symptoms.

Long queues at a Bourke Street testing site on Wednesday.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The number of infected young people is causing havoc for hospitality businesses and music venues that have been forced to shut down or open with restricted hours because their young staff either have the coronavirus or are close contacts of confirmed cases.

Health Minister Martin Foley – announcing rapid antigen test results would need to be registered and added to official case numbers and that density restrictions would be reintroduced for hospitality – said he had been advised about one in 20 people in their 20s currently have the virus.

“The interactions in those hospitality and entertainment venues is close, it’s crowded, it’s active, and it’s mobile. It’s what young people do, we don’t begrudge them that,” Mr Foley said.

About one in 50 people in the general population are believed to be infected.

The impact of surging case numbers, skyrocketing to 21,997 on Thursday, was visible in the CBD. So far this year, foot traffic has been down 48.4 per cent across the City of Melbourne compared to the pre-pandemic benchmark.

The Night Cat in Fitzroy has cancelled live performances during the busy summer period because of escalating infections among staff.

Justin Stanford, owner of the Night Cat in Fitzroy, in 2020.Credit:Eddie Jim

“We try to stay open as much as we can, but we keep getting artists with Omicron,” owner Justin Stanford said.

“All the staff have got it too. It’s like, everybody I know has it at the moment. Except for me, I got a negative test.”

Mr Stanford said music venues were unfairly targeted by the new density restrictions, of one person per two square metres, similar to those reintroduced in NSW, particularly now business support had ended.

Epidemiologist Catherine Bennett, who agreed case numbers were probably double official reports, said temporary density restrictions to slow Omicron’s spread in high-risk environments were commonsense.

Gisborne general practitioner Umair Masood said his clinic had been inundated by young people worried they had the virus but were unable to get tested.

“They’ve got all the symptoms and have been in contact with someone who’s got COVID, but they can’t get a PCR test done or find a rapid antigen [test] anywhere in the area,” he said. “It’s just crazy.”

Young people were also less likely to develop symptoms, meaning they may not be tested at the same rate as older Victorians. High vaccination rates added to the likelihood that symptoms were mild.

Sub Club nightclub in the CBD has closed for the weekend because the majority of artists booked to play “have come down with the spicy cough”, while restaurants such as Bar Liberty and Bar Romantica in the inner-north announced they would be taking temporary breaks because of staff COVID-19 infections.

Chaise Lounge nightclub has pushed back its reopening by one week due to uncertainty around changes to density limits and the possibility that dance floors could be closed, which the government has so far decided against.

“We’ve always been the dirtiest places, only lowlifes go there, that’s the way they treat us. We check every person, and we do everything by the book,” owner Andy Palamara said.

“It’s been 21 months, and there’s still no certainty.”

Mr Palamara, who usually gets about 20 bookings for the club’s VIP and reserved areas a night, said Chaise Lounge only had one booking for the weekend.

“Again, it’s the uncertainty. People don’t know what to do.”

In NSW, where a record 34,994 cases were reported on Thursday, a man in his 20s who had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and had no known underlying health conditions died with COVID-19 at the St Vincent’s Hospital.

Australian National University microbiologist Peter Collignon pointed out Omicron arrived just as almost all COVID-19 restrictions were removed in time for end-of-year work events, Christmas and New Year’s Eve gatherings.

“People went out and partied, particularly those in their 20s, so there was a lot of intermingling,” Professor Collingnon said.

He expected the rapidly climbing case numbers, which surprised him, to plateau by the middle of January before petering off.

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