Doorae Shin is 29 years old and healthy. She exercises regularly, is vegan and eats organic foods, and doesn’t drink alcohol. So when she got very sick with COVID-19 for 10 days this month, she says it was a shock.
It started with her legs being sore to the bone, followed by a 102-degree fever and chills. Shin had searing headaches and body pain in random places, followed by a bad sore throat and cough. She broke out in itchy hives that covered her face, legs, torso and arms, and her skin was so sensitive for a couple of days that her shirt rubbed uncomfortably when she walked.
Shin felt tired, weak and nauseous, and like many suffering from the virus, she lost her sense of taste and smell.
She was also unvaccinated, a decision she now regrets.
Shin is among the 33% of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 in Hawaii who have declined to get vaccinated against COVID-19 even as cases among young people soar to their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic. Hawaii’s rates of vaccination decline significantly among younger age groups. By contrast, nearly all residents over the age of 65 are vaccinated.
Shin has been sharing her story because she wants to encourage more people to get vaccinated, particularly young people like herself who think their age and health largely protects them from serious illness.
“I think that is where I went wrong,” said Shin.
During the first year of the pandemic, older people with underlying health problems were getting sick and dying at much higher rates than the young and healthy. But the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has altered the census of who is ending up in hospitals and on ventilators.
The virus is spreading fastest among the young and unvaccinated. Since the first week of July, the number of COVID-19 cases has increased more than twelvefold among residents between the ages of 18 and 44, according to state data. Cases are also rapidly rising among children, increasing nearly fourteenfold during the same period.
That’s translating into more young people in the hospital suffering from COVID-19. Since early July, when the delta variant began surging throughout the islands, 13 residents in their 30s and 40s have died from COVID-19, according to data from the Department of Health.
On Friday, Maui Memorial Medical Center said it was caring for 34 COVID-19 patients, with six in intensive care and two on ventilators. More than 70% of the patients are under the age of 60, an increase from 10 days ago when younger patients made up 50% of those hospitalized.
The Wailuku hospital is warning that younger people who are seemingly healthy, yet unvaccinated, are being increasingly affected, and it can be random as to who ends up severely ill and struggling to breathe and who ends up with just a slight congestion.
“It’s like musical chairs, the music starts, stops and someone will be without a seat — that’s COVID,” warned Lydia Brandes, a registered nurse who has worked in Maui Memorial’s intensive care unit for 20 years, in a hospital news release. “It can infect anyone, cause severe disease and even death in some, and no symptoms in others.”
STATE DATA also shows a significant increase in young people hospitalized with COVID-19 over the past couple of months. But the data includes those hospitalized because of COVID-19 and people who tested positive for the virus but could be hospitalized for another reason, potentially overstating the impact COVID-19 is having on younger patients.
Still, Dr. Shilpa Patel, a pediatric hospitalist at Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women & Children in Honolulu, said she has seen more children being hospitalized with COVID-19 in the past couple of months.
“We are seeing a lot of infants who are testing positive for COVID-19, even as young as a few days old, because they have had multiple exposures within the family cohort,” she said.
“Some of them do require oxygen and those are the ones that tend to get hospitalized.”
Children under 12 aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine. Patel said the hospital is also seeing unvaccinated older children who are “very, very sick with COVID-19.”
“That does exist and that is heartbreaking, obviously, because it is a preventable disease at this point, meaning that the outcomes don’t have to be so severe,” Patel said.
She said the hospital also has treated children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, referred to as MIS-C, in which parts of the body, such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain and skin, can become inflamed. The condition, which can be serious, has been linked to COVID-19.
Children may not have ever been diagnosed with COVID-19 or come down with symptoms, but antibody tests have shown that their bodies mounted a defense against the virus.
“They do OK. They definitely need to be hospitalized,” Patel said. “They get watched very carefully and they can be very, very sick.”
Patel stressed that the best way to protect young children who can’t yet be vaccinated is for everyone else to get immunized against COVID-19.
SHIN, who believes she likely contracted COVID-19 from her boyfriend, who had recently returned to Oahu on a crowded airplane, never got so sick that she had to go to the hospital. But she believes the outcome could have easily been different if she even had mild health problems.
While she’s now urging people to get vaccinated, Shin also thinks government health officials and the media are falling short in reaching her demographic: young, progressive, college-educated residents.
Shin said her hesitancy about getting vaccinated stemmed in part from her general distrust of for-profit health care systems and pharmaceutical companies that reap large profits from promoting their products.
“When I talk to my friends, they are all progressive, none of them are Republicans, they are all college-educated but they are all vaccine hesitant, and it comes from this place of understanding this recorded history of corruption, the opioid crisis; we have been let down by our health care industry,” she said.
Indeed, Americans’ distrust of the pharmaceutical industry has been at an all-time high, a factor that isn’t always touched upon in surveys about why people aren’t getting vaccinated.
A 2019 Gallup Poll found 58% of Americans had negative views of the pharmaceutical industry and only 27% held positive views. The ratings came amid heightened criticisms about high drug prices, the industry’s role in the opioid epidemic and Big Pharma’s lobbying efforts and funding of political campaigns.
Shin said the public health messaging about the COVID-19 vaccines often ignores this source of distrust.
“It’s not even about the vaccine necessarily,” said Shin, who is the Oahu chapter coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation.
Shin said the wedge between the vaccinated and unvaccinated has become toxic, and vilifying the unvaccinated as selfish isn’t helping.
“I think that just makes people dig their heels in more,” she said.