In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has gone from a novel, distant threat to an enemy besieging cities and towns across the world. The burden of COVID-19 and the economic upheaval wrought by the measures to contain it feel epochal. Humanity now has a common foe, and we will grow increasingly familiar with its face.
Yet plenty of this virus’s aspects remain unknown. The developing wisdom—earned the hard way in Wuhan, Washington, and Italy—has been that older people and sicker people are substantially more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19 than their younger, healthier counterparts. Older people are much more likely than young people to have lung disease, kidney disease, hypertension, or heart disease, and those conditions are more likely to transform a coronavirus infection into something nastier. But what happens when these assumptions don’t hold up, and the young people battling the pandemic share the same risks?
The world is about to find out. So far, about one in 10 deaths in the United States from COVID-19 has occurred in the four-state arc of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, according to data assembled by the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer collaboration incubated at The Atlantic. New Orleans is on pace to become the next global epicenter of the pandemic. The virus has a foothold in southwestern Georgia, and threatens to overwhelm hospitals in the Atlanta metropolitan area. The coronavirus is advancing quickly across the American South. And in the American South, significant numbers of younger people are battling health conditions that make coronavirus outbreaks more perilous.