Throughout the second wave of COVID-19 in Ontario, young adults between the ages of 20 to 39 have reported more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other age group in Ontario. This trend can be explained by two factors, in-person social interaction and economic restraints, according to experts.  

The need for social interaction is pushing young adults to attend large gatherings and see more people, says Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute.

“Regardless of the age group, everyone loves to get together, but this is especially true for young adults,” he said.

Young adults may be seeking out more social interaction because they are less likely to have an established social unit, said Brett Snider, a PhD student at the University of Guelph conducting research on age trends in Ontario’s daily COVID-19 case counts.

“If you’re an older person, you have your family and you’re in that one bubble, but if you’re still trying to develop your family, develop your social bubble, it might be a little more spread out,” said Snider.

The provincial government has addressed in-person social interaction as the main cause for the spread of COVID-19 among young adults, asking them to avoid large gatherings and stay home.

But in-person social interaction doesn't account for case number disparities between age groups. According to Statistics Canada data, young adults report practicing COVID-19 precautions at roughly similar rates as other age groups.

There may be other factors at work, according to an international research study called FOCUS, conducted by the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use.

“What we’ve found so far is that young people appear to be highly adherent to public-health directives,” said FOCUS director Pierre-Julien Coulaud.

Economic realities that make it harder for young adults to follow social distancing may be a contributing factor that better explains this disparity, according to FOCUS researchers.

“Young people are more involved in jobs that are more difficult, that are less well-paid, and that we consider essential work, and potentially they are more at risk of exposure to COVID-19,” said Coulaud.

He adds that young people may also live in smaller places that make it more difficult to practice social distancing.

“We have a lot of participants that are living with roommates or living with their parents,” said Coulaud.

Naseeb Bolduc, the research co-ordinator for FOCUS, says many of these socio-economic factors are often out of young adults’ control.

“As a twenty-something, you can’t decide whether or not your lease is up and your roommates need to change, or your degree ends and you have to take up an internship or a job. Then you’re constantly switching spaces and people in your bubble,” she said.

Coulaud says the Ontario government needs to do more than tell young adults they should stay home and follow COVID-19 preventative measures to address these two factors and decrease COVID-19 cases in the age group.

“We also need to give people the ingredients to follow these COVID-19 measures,” said Coulaud. “It’s not possible to have very restrictive rules and at the same time not find any adaptations.”

Coulaud says the second phase of the FOCUS study will try to find strategies and services that youth organizations can adapt to help young adults follow COVID-19 measures.

Bogoch agrees that COVID-19 measures need to include adaptive tools, saying part of the answer lies in finding ways for people to connect socially in the safest way possible, which includes promoting outdoor gatherings with masks rather than forcing people to covertly gather in homes.

“Set people up for success. Proper messaging that’s age, language and culturally appropriate,” said Bogoch.