Social gatherings, not school, driving Hamilton County's COVID-19 spike in young people, officials say

A physical distancing sign is seen during a media tour of Hastings Elementary school in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

Social gatherings such as parties and carpooling - not classroom interaction - are driving COVID-19 case surges in young people, according to local health and school officials.

Hamilton County Schools resumed in-person learning on Aug. 12 and in the first three weeks of class only four of the district's 171 confirmed COVID-19 cases in students may have been linked to classroom activity, according to schools spokesperson Tim Hensley.

"There have been cases related to contact in school, but it has been a very small number," Hensley said in an email. "There have been approximately four situations where it may be that a positive case was linked to classroom activity, but even in those, the first case was brought into the school from an outside contact."

New COVID-19 cases among Hamilton County residents age 11-20 increased 77% between Aug. 1 and Sept. 1 and 35% between Aug. 12 and Sept. 1 - representing the largest increase in new cases of any age group during those same timeframes.

In the past two weeks, 208 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Hamilton County's 11-20 age group. The only age group with more new cases during that same period was the 21-30-year-old bracket, with 242 new cases.

The continuing trend of new coronavirus cases among young people is linked to transmission at social gatherings, such as field trips, parties, sporting events, carpooling and close contact with friends, according to a statement from the Hamilton County Health Department.

Rae Bond, chair of the local COVID-19 Joint Task Force, said even though coronavirus infection is usually less severe in young people than adults, it's still important for children to adhere to social distancing and face mask guidelines.

"It's really challenging. When you're away at school for the very first time, you may not have the same social constraints you have when your mother is watching you. But we want to just encourage students to continue to do the right thing so that they can continue to go to class and get an education," Bond said, speaking during a news briefing on Tuesday.

"The bottom line is - as long as we all continue to follow these practices, we can move about and we can go to school, we can go to the store, we can start to restore a level of normalcy. But that's dependent on us all doing the right thing."

Although children and adolescents tend to have either mild or no symptoms, studies indicate that infected adolescents 10 years of age and older can spread the disease in the household or in the community as easily as adults. Bond also cautioned parents that the coronavirus is new and therefore the long-term effects of infection are not well understood.

As of Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 1,641 active COVID-19 cases and 54 hospitalizations, including 30 Hamilton County residents and 18 patients in intensive care. The coronavirus has killed three additional residents so far in September, for a total of 78 local deaths since the pandemic began.

In a news release, the health department asked parents to help keep their children and others safe from COVID-19 by monitoring their children for symptoms; keeping children home if symptoms develop; following safety guidance; and talking with their children about ways to minimize transmission risk while participating in extracurricular activities.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.