As a card-carrying member of the “most vulnerable” generation – old geezers – my hearing-impaired ears were raised when our governor announced that half of California’s coronavirus victims were between 18 and 49 years old.
Seniors aged 65 and over made up less than a quarter of those affected.
“Young people can and will be affected by this virus,” Governor Gavin Newsom said at a press conference last week. His message was clear: everyone is vulnerable.
OK everyone, I thought, stop pointing your finger at us seniors. Perhaps we are not the sick, defenseless vectors of disease suggested by our political leaders and medical experts. Stop treating ourselves like pariahs who need to be both protected and avoided – just like younger populations.
Some government figures tended to prove my point, I thought – at least initially.
According to the State Department of Public Health, 51% of Californians affected by COVID-19 were between 18 and 49 years old as of Saturday. That is more than their 44% share of the state’s population.
People aged 50 to 64 accounted for 26% of COVID-19 cases. Their share in the population is only 18%.
But the same goes for us old people. People over 65 accounted for 22% of the cases, which is well above our 15% population.
Young people under the age of 17 made up only 1% of those who tested positive. They are 23% of the population.
Perhaps the most vulnerable: men. They made up 55% of the cases.
Perhaps only men should be ordered to stay at home. Forget it.
I called Dr. Louise Aronson, 56, professor of geriatrics at UC San Francisco School of Medicine and author of a bestseller on Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Redefining Life.
Aronson just caught me. Reading the state data, one can conclude that seniors are no more susceptible to the coronavirus than middle-aged or young people. But that conclusion would be wrong.
The older we get, she said, the more likely it is that we will be badly hit by the virus. That’s because our ability to fight it off has gradually decreased over the years. If you are really old instead of kicking the disease, the chances are higher that you are kicking the bucket.
Why? Basically we wear ourselves out.
We all know this instinctively, but it is human nature in dangerous times not to acknowledge and question the truth, especially for elders who are reasonably healthy for our ages.
“Old people are more likely to get very sick, need hospitalization, need breathing assistance, and die,” said Aronson.
“We already know from around the world that if you have a serious illness and you are very old, if you are sick enough to show up in a hospital, you have almost no chance of survival.”
The state has not released age numbers for Californians who have died from the coronavirus. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that 80% of Americans who died from the virus were 65 years of age or older.
The CDC lists people who are at least 65 years old as “at high risk of serious illness” from COVID-19. But it is said that it is “those of all ages who have serious underlying diseases”. These include chronic lung disease or asthma, serious heart problems, a weakened immune system – possibly caused by cancer treatment – obesity, diabetes, and kidney or liver disease.
“Most older people have at least one risk factor,” says Aronson. “High blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung disease – smoking.”
Yes, let’s face it, this older generation smoked like a chimney when we were young – as we always said. Fortunately, I never did. Smokers – including ex-smokers with lung damage – are now mature targets for COVID-19, a respiratory disease.
Elderly people are particularly at risk because their immune systems are gradually weakened, regardless of whether or not they received cancer treatment, Aronson says. So you are less equipped to fight off the highly contagious disease.
And “their organs don’t work as well as they used to,” adds the geriatrician. “Your lungs probably don’t work that well whether you’ve smoked or not.
“The kidneys don’t work that well. Many people don’t know they have chronic kidney disease, which is very, very common in the older age group. This affects the body’s ability to cope with acute treatment with medication and intravenous fluids. “
Younger people have a “physiological reserve” that seniors don’t, Aronson continues. When older people “lead normal lives, they do not notice it. But when the body is stressed, they notice. “
“Frail people are at higher risk of the disease and complications during hospital stays,” says Aronson. “You have increased your susceptibility to the disease and the chance of poor outcomes – both from the disease and from the treatment.”
Aronson fears the elderly will simply be kissed during the pandemic, as in, “They’re on their way out anyway.”
“Older lives are important,” says Aronson. She fears that governments will “start judging people by age and social security contributions” and conclude that it is acceptable for old people to “just lie down and die”.
Some experts and scientists across the country have suggested that a good plan is to release and return people under 65 who have not contracted the virus – and keep us very vulnerable geezers under house arrest .
“I think everyone should stay home,” says Aronson.
But let’s not hope for up to 12 weeks as Newsom envisions – especially if Major League Baseball isn’t on TV yet. We are extremely prone to going crazy.