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An ambulance drives through downtown Vancouver on April 7, 2020.JESSE WINTER/Reuters

More than one-third of people admitted to hospital and intensive-care units in Canada as a result of COVID-19 are under the age of 60, highlighting that younger people are susceptible to severe illness as a result of the disease.

The latest figures, provided in an epidemiological report published this week by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), underscore warnings from health care providers about the risks COVID-19 poses to people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, and a potential second wave of illness across the country.

While many provinces are reporting that physical-distancing measures are beginning to work, with the curve across Canada starting to flatten, hundreds of new infections are being identified each day, showing that COVID-19 continues to pose a threat.

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Lynora Saxinger, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said younger people who are dismissing the severity of COVID-19 and advocating for society to be reopened quickly should understand most age groups are at risk.

“There’s quite a few people going into the hospital in the relatively youngish adult age range,” she said.

According to PHAC’s report, which is based on data from a subset of the total number of patients hospitalized as a result of COVID-19, 35 per cent of those admitted are under the age of 60. And 36 per cent of those admitted to the ICU as a result of the disease are under the age of 60.

People over the age of 60 represent about two-thirds of hospital and ICU admissions and about 95 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in Canada, according to the report. The proportion of deaths is highest in those who are 80 and over, at 66 per cent.

Children generally experience a mild illness when infected with COVID-19. According to the PHAC report, 14 people aged 19 and under were hospitalized as a result of the disease and of those, two were admitted to the ICU.

People under 60 also account for the largest proportion of cases, at 58 per cent, which could help explain why their hospitalization and ICU rates are fairly high.

Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital, said the hospital admissions among younger people may appear higher because many seniors infected with COVID-19 aren’t going to the hospital. Some who have done advance-care planning may have made decisions to remain at home rather than go to hospital and be placed on a ventilator, which can be a traumatic experience that is difficult to recover from even if patients survive. And many of the seniors who are infected at long-term care homes are dying at those facilities.

But that doesn’t change the fact that younger people are becoming critically ill as a result of COVID-19, Dr. Warner said.

“I don’t feel reassured by the fact I’m 41 and healthy. I think I’m just as much at risk as anyone, because that’s what we’ve seen on the ground,” he said.

Dr. Warner said his hospital regularly sees people between 40 and 70 who are admitted to the ICU as a result of COVID-19. Many of the younger adults who become critically ill have some underlying conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity, but research is continuing to figure out why some people become critically ill while others don’t.

Many people don’t appreciate that becoming severely ill in the ICU is a life-altering experience, regardless of the outcome Dr. Warner said.

“Even if you survive, your life after could be very difficult,” he said, adding that many patients have long recoveries and may experience disabilities as a result.

The PHAC report found that more men are admitted to the hospital and ICU than women. Of the 2,369 hospital admissions included in the report, 56 per cent were among men. And men accounted for 66 per cent of the ICU admissions. The imbalance is a phenomenon being seen in countries around the world and researchers are studying it to get a better understanding of why men may be more at risk of severe outcomes.

The most common COVID-19 symptoms reported, according to the report, are cough, headache and general weakness.

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