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How at risk are millennials of getting COVID-19, really?

A new report, and personal experiences, are changing what we know about coronavirus and millennials.

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Natasha Wynnyk and Christian Heuer were the first people they knew to get the coronavirus.

Heuer, 32, got it first. Last Friday, he started to feel symptoms that were right in line with what you're reading in the news: high fever, aches and pains; shortness of breath. He had traveled recently for work — and realized that he fit the bill for coronavirus symptoms. Five days later, a test confirmed it: He had the novel coronavirus that's sparked a pandemic.

"I was like, oh man, this seems spot on," Heuer tells Inverse. "For me, the symptoms haven't really let up yet. It's definitely not super light."

Wynnyk, 28, started to feel symptoms four days later. She hasn't been tested, but her doctor told her that she didn't need to be, considering she had been exposed to the virus.

"It was really out of the blue — all of a sudden I got shivers and had a fever," she tells Inverse. "I would say I'm doing okay right now. We're hanging in there, it's definitely a long virus."

Now safely quarantined in their Los Angeles home, the couple is holding up. Their friends drop groceries at their door. They chat through closed windows to maintain social distancing.

"All of a sudden I got shivers and had a fever."

Wynnyk and Heuer fall into a category that was downplayed at the start of the pandemic: millennials. Now, new numbers suggest that millennials, a generation thought to be less at risk for the virus, play a bigger role in the pandemic than we thought.

Rethinking "who" gets COVID-19

It remains that the people who are most at risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms are the elderly as well as those with pre-existing conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, or lung issues. That said, there are more young adults that have COVID-19 than previously estimated — and more hospitalized for COVID-19-related reasons that previously believed.

A preliminary CDC report released Wednesday gives us a comprehensive look at about 2,449 of the United States' first coronavirus cases and shows that 29 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 44 have confirmed COVID-19 cases. Of the 508 people who were hospitalized, 20 percent were in that age group, which roughly translates to millennials.

The CDC's preliminary data on hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths due to COVID-19, by age group.CDC

So while Wynnyk and Heuer are the first people they know to have COVID-19, odds are, they won't be the last. Now, we're starting to see millennials as a crucial group who may help decide the fate of COVID-19, whether they have the virus or not.

How at-risk are millennials, really?

For millennials, CDC statistics may feel scary, partially because they were so unexpected that they made headlines on Wednesday: Younger Adults Make Up Big Portion of Coronavirus Hospitalizations in U.S.A, reads a New York Times headline, reporting on the CDC data. Yes, Young People Are Falling Seriously Ill From Covid-19, reads a Bloomberg headline.

Reading that coverage, and watching the extreme (but necessary) measures that have been put into place to stem the spread of the virus is even scarier when you've actually tested positive. This crystallized for Wynnyk early on.

While she was still asymptomatic, she shopped for fluids at a local grocery store. That was the first day Heuer had his fever and the same day President Trump declared a national emergency. The store was packed. The shelves were empty.

"At that moment I was definitely scared," reflects Wynnyk. "I was on the verge of tears because it really felt like, we might have this."

"From a first-hand perspective, please, everyone, don't go out."

The experience, so far, has been unpleasant — but has become less scary, the more Wynnyk and Heuer live through it. They're lucky, Wynnyk says.

Their experience, combined with the CDC statistics, illuminates a reality: Millennials are at risk of experiencing COVID-19, and pains that come with it. That said, there is still no reason to be panicked, says Jeffrey Martin, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California San Francisco.

Even if you look at the hospitalization rates for those aged 20 to 44 (20 percent of 508 cases, by the CDC's report) the data is "difficult to interpret," says Martin. This is because people may be hospitalized for different reasons and different severity of symptoms.

"The report did indicate that younger people are not with no risk," Martin tells Inverse. "It’s a sort of fine line in that I don’t think that younger people need to be in a great panic about this for themselves."

He reiterates that the risk to any one individual is low — but when you multiply that risk across the millions of millennials across the country, you start to see numbers that might be alarming.

"It’s not that any single person has a high risk [unless that person has an underlying condition] — if you multiply that even small percentage among a lot of people that will start to add up," Martin explains.

Still, he is not arguing that millennials should take COVID-19 lightly.

Heuer and Wynnyk certainly aren't either: They're under self-quarantine, and it hasn't been easy. It's hard to get information about how long the virus will actually last. Eight days of fever can take a toll, and there's simply not much information about just when it will finally dissipate, says Heuer.

"The CDC website doesn't have much for if you're actually positive," he reflects. It's hard to know what to expect you're actually living with COVID-19.

A crucial role to play

A week ago feels like the distant past when measured against the rapidly changing COVID-19 news cycle. But if you look back, you'll see tweets of people lined up outside bars in major cities, clustered on public beaches in Florida.

Now as new data emerges, we know that the virus is less discerning than we thought.

"More than ever now, having it, I understand why we're having these strict guidelines and social distancing. I get it," says Wynnyk.

"From a first-hand perspective, please, everyone, don't go out."

What we do know says Martin, is that the general role that millennials have to play in the outbreak hasn't changed. Those who aren't sick can still keep up social-distancing, and protect those who may end up with even more severe symptoms.

"The fact remains that the main reason that they are being asked to maintain social distancing is to maintain the more vulnerable members of the population," he says. "Young people have a tremendous role to play here."

Those who end up with the virus, and don't have underlying health conditions, do appear to be able to weather the storm.

And as scary as the news is, it's important to remember that people do recover from COVID-19: As of writing, nearly 100,000 people around the world have recovered.

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